America’s new pagans

Liel Leibovitz
Liel Leibovitz
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Here’s a very, very brief history of America: It’s a nation founded by Christians who fled England because they wanted to be more, not less, devout, and who then turned the Hebrew Bible into their new nation’s moral founding document, making sure that their faith permeated every aspect of their society and culture.

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Today, only 64 percent of Americans, according to a study released earlier this fall by the Pew Research Center, currently identify as Christian, down from 90 percent 50 years ago. It’s not that America is suddenly awash with believers in other traditions: Muslims currently make up about 1.3 percent of the population, Jews about 1.9 percent, and Hindus and Buddhists about 1 percent each. Rather, the change has to do with the rapid rise of unbelievers, who can now count 3 out of every 10 Americans among their ranks.

What to make of the precipitous decline of the American religious spirit?

You can follow the party line peddled by our self-appointed intellectual and moral betters and believe that as progress shines its golden light on mankind, more and more of us shake off the dust of old religions as we gleefully realize that we don’t need to cower in fear of a wrathful God, now that science has given us the tools to explore and refashion our world.

Or you can actually pay attention to what makes us human and understand that faith isn’t some silly vestige of an earlier, benighted epoch; it’s a fundamental, foundational, and indelible human need.

Without belief—in God, in karma, in the benevolent order of the universe, in something greater than ourselves that gives our lives some meaning—we’re left, like rodents, scurrying for scraps and shelter and vulnerable to random acts of savagery. It’s why small children, realizing how helpless they are, gravitate to games with intricate rules, and why adults, for millennia, organized their lives around faith traditions that gave them a clear and nurturing way of being in the world.
No sooner had our species emerged out of its caves and blinked at the harsh sunlight than we began fashioning rituals to help us make sense of all the natural phenomena around us we could hardly understand and couldn’t control.

Those Americans who identify as unaffiliated with any religion, then, aren’t really being candid. They’re not nihilists who believe in nothing; they believe in something, and their religion is hardly new. It has a familiar face and an ancient name: paganism.

Strictly speaking, paganism was practiced by the cults of ancient Greece and Rome. But its bundle of beliefs—rejection of the monotheistic idea, reverence for nature expressed through ecological preoccupations and rituals, faith in the inherent mysticism of femininity, to name but three—appeals to a rapidly growing number of Americans. In 1990, for example, about 8,000 Americans described themselves as pagans; by 2008, that number skyrocketed to 340,000. A decade later, the Pew survey reported no less than 1.5 million belonging to a wide array of neopagan persuasions, from wiccans to druids to Vikings, making it one of the nation’s fastest-growing religions. Intellectually, morally, and spiritually speaking, those self-reported pagans are merely the tip of the iceberg.

Think of paganism, and suddenly a host of disparate, baffling phenomena in America and elsewhere in the de-Christianizing West make sense. Why are so-called environmental activists tossing soup and mashed potatoes on great works of art? Why are the empirically observable biological realities that divide us into male and female under such fierce assault? Why has race emerged again as the sole lens through which to judge a person’s worth, after decades in which we’ve toiled to painstakingly reject this worldview as, well, racist?

Each of these phenomena can be baffling when considered on its own. Seen collectively, as components of a larger American pagan belief system, they make sense. This, mind you, is not to suggest that “pagan” means somehow inferior or morally flawed; those of us fortunate enough to derive strength and solace from their own faith tradition know better than to begrudge another its peculiarities. Our own ancestors were also idol worshippers. But because our new American pagans so often busily deny that theirs is a belief system, it’s important to swipe away the obfuscations and see the new pagans for who they are.

Consider, for example, the question of what to make of innate differences between people. The Hebrew Bible, in its infinite wisdom, gives us Isaiah’s report that God’s “house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.” If we all believe in one God, and yearn to one day return to His house, we are also reminded of the fact that we were all created in God’s image, which means that our differences are, at best, skin-deep. A later Christian American minister who was a very astute reader of the Hebrew Bible, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., gave us an elegant distillation of this idea when he urged us to judge people not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

Pagans have always believed the exact opposite. To the Ostrogoths and Visigoths, to the Moors and the Huns, tribal affiliation was both an inescapable destiny and a defining feature of humanity. Transcendence was impossible because there was nothing and nowhere beyond the horizon of the tribe to which you could aspire. The best you could hope for is that your king or chieftain might sharpen his sword and subdue your neighbors to the north or south.

Primitive tribalism is much the logic of America’s neo-pagans, who insist first that we divide ourselves into indelible and immovable racial and ethnic categories and then that we engage in bouts for limited resources until a clear system of hierarchy is created. They may call it “social justice,” or insist that the aim is correcting real and observable historical wrongs, but the impulse behind such a way of seeing the world is decidedly pagan. True American Christians—Martin Luther King Jr., Fredrick Douglass, Sojourner Truth—sought to rekindle the biblical call to communion to bring us closer together, just like Jews and Muslims do. Pagans delight in tearing us apart.

Which, really, is very good news.

Once you understand that America is engaged not in a political scuffle or an economic melee but in a full-fledged religious war, your outlook should immediately grow considerably rosier. The droves of Americans who have signed on to paganism are telling us that they’re desperately seeking to believe in something, eager for some spirit to animate their lives. They chose paganism not because it offered some coherent and compelling set of beliefs, but rather because it had energy on its side. The kids throwing their lunch on a Van Gogh and announcing that the world will end in a decade because of climate change or insisting that gender no longer exists may be dumb and confused, but they’re exciting to watch.

How, then, do we—Christians, Muslims, and Jews—get back in the game of winning hearts and minds? Easy: By speaking loudly and proudly and joyously. By practicing our faith openly and defiantly and showing our pagan friends and neighbors the profound satisfaction that comes from living a nurturing, traditional life that sees man as God’s creation.

We’ve seen a bit of that spirit during COVID-19, when Catholics, Muslims, and Orthodox Jews got together to successfully sue New York’s power-drunk former governor, Andrew Cuomo, to ease his absurd restrictions on attending houses of worship. But politics is always downstream from culture, and so it’s now up to us to do as our ancestors had once done and go fight the pagans on the fields where the battle now matters most. TV shows like Ramy, showing us life as an observant Muslim, or Shtisel, about a family of observant Jews, are a stellar start. We need many more.

And many more we soon will have, because paganism, as history so bluntly teaches us, is an inferior product. The tribes that once proudly practiced it didn’t perish; they converted to other, better faith traditions, realizing that they needed ideas like Takbir or like Grace, mighty theological engines that have proven indestructible throughout the ages. There’s no reason to believe that the new pagan era that’s now upon us will end any differently.

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