Which “Paganism” Did the New York Times Mean?

When New York Times (mostly) political columnist Ross Douthat wrote a December 12 column titled “The Return of Paganism: Maybe There Actually is a Genuinely Post-Christian Future for America,” some Pagans got a little too excited — look, the NYT is writing about us!

Remember, there are at least three definitions for “pagan/Pagan.”

  1. A nonreligious person or an unbeliever, from a monotheistic perspective.1)For Jews, this means to never have them as close friends or family. For Christians, it means they should be converted. For Muslims, it means they should be converted, and meanwhile, it permissible to enslave them.
  2.  A person philosophically opposed to monotheisms on the grounds that they are life-denying cosmologies that desacralize the world. An example that I will return to is the French philosopher Alain de Benoist, known for his book On Being a Pagan, and other works. Camille Paglia fits here too. Such philosophical Pagans, however, often look down their noses at category 3.
  3.  Persons who declare that they are following a Pagan religion. This may represent a reconstructed version of what their ancestors did or a new set of practices deemed compatible with ancient Paganism or a reconstructed version of practices from an admired ancient culture (for instance, if I were a Hellenic reconstructionist although not Greek by heritage). In addition, “Pagan” sometimes is employed to cover all polytheistic,2)There are “atheist” and “humanistic” Pagans, it is true. Perhaps they are merely Unitarians who like to be in the woods. animistic, and indigenous religions

A lot of Douthat’s piece is about position #1.

Here are some generally agreed-upon facts about religious trends in the United States. Institutional Christianity has weakened drastically since the 1960s. Lots of people who once would have been lukewarm Christmas-and-Easter churchgoers now identify as having “no religion” or being “spiritual but not religious.” The mainline-Protestant establishment is an establishment no more.

Then he goes into a “spiritual smorgasbord” section, where the “religious impulse” produces new creations of spiritual entrepreneurs who “cobble together pieces of the old orthodoxies” that are still under the overarching monotheist worldviews.

Nevertheless, he continues, there comes a “moment when you should just believe people who claim they have left the biblical world-picture behind, a context where the new spiritualities add up to a new religion.”  He quotes a new book by Steven D. Smith, Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac, which speaks of a “new religious conception”:

What is that conception? Simply this: that divinity is fundamentally inside the world rather than outside it, that God or the gods or Being are ultimately part of nature rather than an external creator, and that meaning and morality and metaphysical experience are to be sought in a fuller communion with the immanent world rather than a leap toward the transcendent

That sounds exactly like what Benoist was writing in the early1980s, or like various other people in the “#2 Pagan” category. But we have not even gotten to Wiccans, Heathens, Druids, etc.!

He finally gets to Wiccans, etc., at the end, consigning them to a “New Age” category, which just shows his ignorance. After all, if your Paganism includes “the gods are a part of nature,” you are not New Age but very Old Age. “New Age” is all about leaping towards the transcendent, just in a more gnostic way than in the churches.

By the end, he is broadly hinting that this “new paganism” will lead to an increase in demonic possession — just follow his last hyperlink.

Writing for The Wild Hunt, Manny Tejado-Moreno claims that “Douthat has it backwards. . . . Douthat appears to be profoundly disturbed at the loss of central moral authority, and, apparently unable to cope with what organized religion has done to itself, seeks a scapegoat in Paganism.”

But no, it’d not “backwards” insofar as Doughtat is not really writing about us practicing Pagans. We are just an afterthought. He is indeed concerned about the loss of Christian hegemony, a concern raised a couple of generations ago in western Europe but only more recently popping up in North America, where Christianity was always the 600-pound gorilla in the religion room.3)Now it’s what, the 300-pound gorilla? He sees the #1-#2 “paganism” that is replacing it as a falling away from The Truth.

If you want to watch a thoughtful Christian writer struggle with that issue, bookmark Rod Dreher’s blog or read his book The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in Post-Christian Nation, which is selling well in translation in France and Italy, I wonder why.

Notes   [ + ]

1. For Jews, this means to never have them as close friends or family. For Christians, it means they should be converted. For Muslims, it means they should be converted, and meanwhile, it permissible to enslave them.
2. There are “atheist” and “humanistic” Pagans, it is true. Perhaps they are merely Unitarians who like to be in the woods.
3. Now it’s what, the 300-pound gorilla?

1 thought on “Which “Paganism” Did the New York Times Mean?

  1. Douthat also didn’t even do a good job of integrating statistics into his argument, and it ended up looking under-researched. Anyone else would have actually needed to explain why le was using a specific set of survey data from Pew &c.

    He is writing about all of us, though, because I have a feeling he thinks that [1-3] can be reduced to [1], not that we are an afterthought, based on both his track record and the way he structured the op-ed.

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