A pagan psychology does not a pagan society make

Ross Douthat has a column in The New York Times, The Return of Paganism: Maybe there actually is a genuinely post-Christian future for America. He concludes:

That embarrassment may not last forever; perhaps a prophet of a new harmonized paganism is waiting in the wings. Until then, those of us who still believe in a divine that made the universe rather than just pervading it — and who have a certain fear of what more immanent spirits have to offer us — should be able to recognize the outlines of a possible successor to our world-picture, while taking comfort that it is not yet fully formed.

Thirteen years ago I also stumbled in such an inchoate direction in a post, A Prayer For The Emperor. Douthat in fact linked to this post from his perch at The American Scene, though he may not recall it.

I think Douthat is making a distinction implicitly in The New York Times column between a pagan psychology, which bubbles up out of human innate cognitive architecture, and a pagan religious society, which takes the cognitive froth and reshapes it into collective ritual and belief.

Human intuitions regarding the supernatural seem to be fundamentally animistic. We imbue places and animals with spirit. In general, I agree with the scholars who argue that this is an outcome of “overactive agency detection.” A world filled with the illusion of life and danger may induce more stress and anxiety, but in the Darwinian context, excessive vigilance is a virtue, not a vice.

“Religion nerds” like Douthat and Rod Dreher actually have a fair amount in common in their assumptions and cognitive style with hyper-rational atheists such as Armin Navabi (Navabi comes out of a “religion nerd” background). As Roman Catholic Christians Douthat and Dreher must give a nod to the mystical, and Dreher, in particular, has asserted the importance of the sensory in reawakening his religious faith. But both scaffold, channel and discipline their supernatural intuitions into very precise streams. Similarly, Navabi’s understanding of religion is as a system.

One of the elements of the religious systems developed over the past 3,000 years in complex societies characterized by specialization, and the emergence of a literate ruling class (or at least a ruling class which makes recourse to a literate caste), is that animistic and spirit-soaked component of religion has receded. Some intellectual historians have argued that the atheism of early modern Europe can be understood as the logical conclusion of a rationalist streak within Reformed Protestantism, which reduced the supernatural singularly to God and his host. Whereas other forms of Christianity perceived the world as filled with false gods who were faces of genuine demons, the rationalist form of Reformed Protestantism dismissed false gods as human inventions. This diminution of the supernatural then might lead one to the next logical step, banishing even God from the universe!

I do not think this was a special event in world history. We are all aware that the same tendency was pregnant within Hinduism, Buddhism, and in Chinese societies, with certain sects and factions pushing toward atheism and materialism. In the world of early Islam skeptics also existed, often drawing from the older traditions of the Classical World. Strangely, it is in the European Christian world that the supernatural-skeptical tradition was mostly absent. One might suppose this might have something to do with near monopoly of the religious class on intellectual activity in Western Europe for many centuries. Those who were personally skeptical likely kept that to themselves due to their vocation.

But these currents have always floated above the populace, whose practice and beliefs were much more demotic. The existence of religious reform and revival, and zealous cults, within most societies is due in large part to the deviationism that characterizes the religious sentiments of the populace at large. Though the mythos, ritual, and panoply of the great religions attract the people to them, the reality is that all these could exist without the formal and rationalist element which is necessitated by the systematizing tendencies of the intelligentsia.

What we see in the decline of the customary Christian sects and denominations in American society is in some ways a loss of the power of cultural elites. Arguably this period of the dominance of several forms of Christianity was itself a temporary period, with the early republic characterized by a large proportion of unchurched and free-thinkers, as well as a plethora of radical sects. The decades after World War II were an exception, which we took to be the new normal.

The broader decline in trust in institutions, the popularization of culture, and the disdain toward elites, has manifested now a turning away from organized religion. But the populace still wants to believe, and in their hearts they have deep and strong intuitions about the universe. Whether the universe has purpose, it feels like it has purpose. Individuals and subcultures develop ad hoc beliefs and practices to channel these feelings and sentiments, but there is no broad social system or identity to bind them together into a formal whole.

A “harmonized paganism”, as Douthat may say, may not manifest because a it needs a harmonious society, and that is not something we have. State paganism needs a powerful state with a self-confident elite culture. State paganism needs an Emperor, to be the axis mundi between Heaven and Earth. Elite Western Christianity is collapsing, but it being replaced popular paganism, and that is because elite high culture no longer has the prestige it once did, and all is demotic. The ancient world was not a mass society, it was a culture defined by rules, and bound by ritual. The consumer society is driven bottom-up decision making, the impulse of the mob.

What we are seeing is the reemergence of hunter-gatherer animism writ large.

13 thoughts on “A pagan psychology does not a pagan society make

  1. Lapel-pinners have only themselves to blame. Here they are being warned in 1926:

    “in fact, there never has been any exact, complete system of philosophic thought, and there never has been any exact understanding of dogmas, an understanding which has been properly confined to strict interpretation in terms of a philosophic system, complete or incomplete.

    Accordingly, though dogmas have their measure of truth, which is unalterable, in their precise forms they are narrow, limitative, and alterable: in effect untrue, when carried over beyond the proper scope of their utility.

    A system of dogmas may be the ark within which the Church floats safely down the flood-tide of history. But the Church will perish unless it opens its window and lets out the dove to search for an olive branch. Sometimes even it will do well to disembark on Mount Ararat and build a new altar to the divine Spirit – an alter neither in Mount Gerizim nor yet at Jerusalem.

    The decay of Christianity and Buddhism, as determinative influences in modern thought, is partly due to the fact that each religion has unduly sheltered itself from the other. The self- sufficient pedantry of learning and the confidence of ignorant zealots have combined to shut up each religion in its own forms of thought. Instead of looking to each other for deeper meanings, they have remained self-satisfied and unfertilized.

    Both have suffered from the rise of the third tradition, which is science, because neither of them had retained the requisite flexibility of adaptation. Thus the real, practical problems of religion have never been adequately studied in the only way in which such problems can be studied, namely, in the school of experience.

    One most obvious problem is how to save the intermediate imaginative representations of spiritual truths from loss of effectiveness, if the possibility of modifications of dogma are admitted. The religious spirit is not identical with dialectical acuteness. Thus these intermediate representations play a great part in religious life. They are enshrined in modes of worship, in popular religious literature, and in art. Religions cannot do without them; but if they are allowed to dominate, uncriticised by dogma or by recurrence to the primary sources of religious inspiration, they are properly to be termed idols. In Christian history, the charge of idolatry has been bandied to and fro among rival theologians. Probably, if taken in its wide sense, it rests with equal truth on all the main churches, Protestant, and Catholic. Idolatry is the necessary product of static dogmas.

    But the problem of so handling popular forms of thought as to keep their full reference to the primary sources, and yet also to keep them in touch with the best critical dogmas of their times, is no easy one. The chief figures in the history of the Christian Church who seem to have grasped explicitly its central importance were, Origen in the Church of Alexandria, in the early part of the third century, and Erasmus in the early part of the sixteenth century. Their analogous fates show the wavering attitude of the Christian Church, culminating in lapses into dogmatic idolatry. It must, however, be assigned to the great credit of the Papacy of his time, that Erasmus never in his lifetime lost the support of the court of Rome. Unfortunately Erasmus, though a good man, was no hero, and the moral atmosphere of the Renaissance Papacy was not equal to its philosophic insight. In the phrase of Leo X, the quarrel of monks began; and yet another golden opportunity was lost, while rival pedants cut out neat little dogmatic systems to serve as the unalterable measure of the Universe.”

  2. I think that Douthat is on to something in his conjecture that lack of ritual is holding back paganism, and really atheism as well. But, I would formulate it not in terms of lack of ritual, but in the need for a new religious/philosophical/metaphysical ethos to rewrite life scripts from the ground up. Civic religious or metaphysical observance is only a piece of the puzzle.

    As a first generation atheist, I’ve had to (and you will have to) figure out what stories and myths to provide to my children in lieu of the Christian scripts I grew up with, which holidays to celebrate and how to do so, how to mark coming of age, what to do with our time on Sundays in a unchurched life, how to interact with people of faith, how to respond to events in the world and in my personal community that others address with prayers, how to address personal emotional moments and relationship issues that often have a religious context and more. The notion of giving thanks, for example, while not inherently religious, has been one of the trickier ones to translate into non-religious terms.

    I’m not quite old enough that I’ve given a lot of thought to secular rituals to respond to death in a very personal way, despite dealing with the existing religious and secular rituals on a regular basis doing probate law and estate planning as part of the “end of life team” along with funeral home and cemetery directors, clergy, hospice workers, physicians and the responsible family members of the next generation. The funerals I’ve been most inclined to mimic have been those of a Unitarian Universalist professor of mine who was also the father of a high school friend, and some of the Japanese funeral practices. I have started to see, however, many secular weddings that are along the line of what I would want for my children, including that of my brother and one of my cousins (I had a traditional Christian wedding).

    In my generation, when most atheists are first generation atheists, we are in an incredibly generative era when it comes to writing new scripts which our children’s generation, second generation secular, can take for granted to a much greater extent as received tradition instead of a cultural puzzle to be worked out one piece at a time on the fly.

    Douthat also focuses a lot of his neopagan analysis on Wiccans and New Age metaphysics (and he really should have given Carl Sagan who was influential in related movements some credit as well). But, those movements are really old news.

    The movement that has really stepped up to the fore to assert a civic religious presence in a secular/neopagan tradition has really been the Satanic Temple, which have progressed beyond the mere meme status of predecessor movements in the same vein like the Church of the Flying Spaghetti monster and the cult of the Invisible Pink Unicorn. The Satanic Temple movement, unlike its predecessors and the Wiccans, the New Age movement, and LeVey Satanism, has gotten its shit together to develop an artistic aesthetic and allegorical narrative, to bring litigation to demand representation for their symbols and beliefs, and to actively start after school programs for kids. Only the American Humanist Association and American Ethical Union have come close to those levels of organization and action, and the Satanic Temple has done so more boldly and with more clarity, despite being more intentionally ironic than, Wiccans, New Age, the AHA, or the AEU.

    Being first can be very influential, and I would not be surprised if the Satanic Temple and a few imitators of its model become the neo-pagan civil religious elite that Douthat envisions in two or three decades. It may become as much of an American institution as the ACLU, the Anti-Defamation League, Planned Parenthood, People for the American Way, and the Free Masons of the Millennial and Post-Millennial generations. Because it has its act together better than many of its rivals, it has become a spokesperson not just for its members but for the entire non-religious community. It might even, in the hands of a second generation of leaders who grew up with parents involved that organization become more sincere and personally felt religious/philosophical identity than the near parody and work of performance art that it is today.

  3. To save having to look it up for others who are as culturally deficient as I am, via Wikipedia:

    “The mountain is one of the highest peaks in the West Bank and rises to 881 m (2,890 ft) above sea level, 70 m (230 ft) lower than Mount Ebal. In Samaritan tradition, Mount Gerizim is held to be the highest, oldest and most central mountain in the world. The mountain is sacred to the Samaritans who regard it, rather than Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, as having been the location chosen by Yahweh for a holy temple. The mountain continues to be the centre of Samaritan religion to this day, and most of the worldwide population of Samaritans live in very close proximity to Gerizim, mostly in Kiryat Luza, the main village. Passover is celebrated by the Samaritans on Mount Gerizim, and it is additionally considered by them as the location of the Binding of Isaac (the Masoretic Text, Septuagint and the Dead Sea Scroll versions of the Book of Genesis state that this happened on Mount Moriah, which Jews traditionally identify as the Temple Mount). According to rabbinic literature, in order to convert to Judaism, a Samaritan must first and foremost renounce any belief in the sanctity of Mount Gerizim.”

    And: Samaritans are: “Guardians/Keepers/Watchers (of the Torah)”) are an ethnoreligious group of the Levant originating from the Israelites (or Hebrews) of the Ancient Near East.”

  4. Don’t I have better things to do?

    You could tell us where the quote came from. I guessed H.G. Wells but it’s from Alfred North Whitehead’s 1926 Lowell Lectures, Religion in the Making.

  5. because elite high culture no longer has the prestige it once did, and all is demotic.

    Different religion, different values, different language and they live in different communities. Is it premature to check the pulley and rope and the edge on the blade on the guillotine?


  6. “Satanic Temple has done so more boldly and with more clarity, despite being more intentionally ironic than”
    They may have started out being intentionally ironic, but a good chunk of their acolytes have become quite sincere.
    There’s a certain level of douchebaggery involved in what they do too, that’s off-putting to anyone who isn’t instinctively edgy or out to be a deliberate jerk to Christians.

  7. I have argued that the “environmentalist” movement is pagan. It has certainly developed a strong apocalyptic tradition as its semimonthly publication of ever more dire predictions about imminent ecological catastrophe caused by “climate change”. Isn’t the promotion of abortion a form of human sacrifice.

  8. I don’t think that paganism per se is a good sort of category to use to think about what’s going on right now. What is important about post Christian sorts is that they are utilitarians/epircureans or to use the pejorative word, which I think would be best here, decadents. The ancient Romans were most certainly pagans, but at least before the late republic, weren’t decadents, their paganism pretty much had the same attitude to decadence that Christianity does. Also, atheism runs downstream from decadence, decadents are always atheists, what God or gods they don’t believe in are immaterial.

    So as far as reviving any sort of paganism, decadents don’t do paganism either. Paganism can make demands, and decadents, who believe the best life is the most pleasant one don’t go to places like that.

    Lastly, modern decadence really is a new thing, there was never anything like it in the past, so it’s kind of hard to figure what might happen with it. Decadence requires affluence, one can have affluence without decadence, but decadence is impossible without affluence. Modern decadence is mass decadence, which has never happened before since the mass affluence that supports mass decadence never existed before in human history before about 1960 or so. . Prior to 1960 or so, there was no such thing as a poor fat person. It’s really new.

    In the past, decadents knew they were decadents, since they had to live in a society where most people couldn’t be, and therefore weren’t, decadents. What makes the present day decadent different, is he might not be actually be aware of some other way of looking at what a life well lived actually exist, it seems to me that Ivy league ethical philosophy professors are mostly such people.

    Having said all that, maybe such people might go for something that one might call a ‘religion’ remembering that the word religion comes from the latin for ‘bind together’ as in anything that might be a totem of a tribe could be called a religion without doing any sort of violence to the word, that’s why ‘civil religion’, isn’t a wrong thing to say.

    As far as what might happen with all this stuff as decadents do religion in the future, mass decadence being a new thing, one does wonder if it has any sort of future at all. A very intelligent decadent of the past was Louis ‘Apres nous, the Deluge’ XV, who both got decadence and the point to that particular bible story. A decadent tribe’s days were always numbered in the past. Who knows if that is still true?

    One wonders too if someone in the present who could be a moral lawgiver type like Lycurgus or an Church Father, like say the Emperor Xi, might be wondering to himself if it is possible to achieve mass affluence without mass decadence. Maybe it’s not.

  9. j mct, I’m having a hard time speaking what with my awesome new whole-face tattoo, but yes–agreed. Caloric surfeit combined with lack of meaningful work is central to present mass de- –toto–

    Setting aside cata-megas {EMP, environmental/foodchain collapse, nooks, pathological violencers destroying all hope of peaceful governmental successions,CRISPR-frying type fantasmagorical probabilities, malign AI ‘singularity’}, which are all at this point possibly still mitigatable probabilities:

    {Increasingly centralized personal data/biotracking of persons, and consequent loss of almost every modern anonymity/privacy} seems a foregone certainty.

    What is happening as a result is nothing less than a foundational re-imagining of moral and psychological **interiority**. Assuming the continuance of ‘Western civilization’, those religious activities/modes/edificies which best secure space for the untamable impulse for expression of personal-individual impetuses, will prevail.

  10. It seems to me that all these pagans are an extremely minute group, likely less than 1% or so of the whole population. My own rather large (ca. 70 plus) nominally Catholic family has only a few believing, practicing Catholics. The great majority are indifferent to any and all spiritual things and live day to day focused on their immediate needs. They are neither pagan nor animist. I doubt any of them has ever had a religious moment of any kind.

    The sexual revolution of the 60’s also never came to my neighborhood.

  11. My dad teaches film theory and he talks about how the kids don’t know classic film any more due to the ability to choose their own fav genre on Netflix and only watch that. film pagans? (he thinks it’s a bad thing fwiw)
    that was an excellent piece. i’m donating to your paypal for slavery reparations, etc.

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