The Creeping Menace of ‘Paganism’

Dear god! Nature religion! (Illustration by Katie Martin, Getty Images).

Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple and (visiting at) Harvard Divinity School is like someone who steps in dog shit, comes back indoors, and keeps wondering where the smell is coming from.

“We are all children of the same God,” he announces in a essay in The Atlantic  (link goes to archived version).

And “we” are opposed to [small-p] “paganism,” which is about power, nature-worship, and wealth-worship. “Hug a tree or a dollar bill, and the pagan in you shines through.”[1]For Wolpe the exemplar of this “paganism” is, of course, Donald Trump, that notorious tree-hugger. But it’s an election year.

The rabbi’s essay was not the first to make that point — as I will point out — but it hit at the right time and place, and suddenly contemporary Pagans were asking, “What’ s that smell?”

In  her letter to The Atlantic, anthropologist and Pagan studies scholar Sabina Magliocco, “long-time reader of and subscriber to The Atlantic,” lambasted the piece as “misinformed and distorts both historical and contemporary understandings of paganisms in ways that are profoundly damaging to both Indigenous and revived religions.”

Pagan blogger John Halstead observes correctly that the rabbi is not talking about actual people, today’s Pagans, but about this bogeyman lurking in the shadows, one described in 1937 by the historial Arnold Toynbee as “the new paganism.”

Wolpe equates nature with the most violent and base behavior. His fear, like that of so many other monotheists, is that, in the absence of a transcendental ideal of Goodness, we will all turn into savages raping and eating each other.

Halstead’s blog links to other responses to Wolpe’s article. I will mention just two more. The Wild Hunt has also covered this issue, as linked above.

At Harvard’s Program for the Evolution of Spirituality, Dan McKanan and Giovanna Parmigiani posted an open letter to David Wolpe, siscussing how his approach illustrates how hard it is to discuss religion when “many religions define themselves in opposition to other religions.”

One way to do this is to frame the critiques in the most culturally specific manner possible. Judaism did not emerge in response to “paganism” writ large; it emerged in response to the specific religious and political practices of immediately adjacent cultures. But again and again, Wolpe misses the chance to be specific in his critique. Instead, he identifies Donald Trump, Elon Musk, communism, fascism, Friedrich Nietzsche, the QAnon Shaman, and Peter Singer as diverse manifestations of a single phenomenon that he calls “pagan.” This universalizing gesture is especially problematic given the inherent diversity of Paganism.

Later, Dr Parmigiani noted on Facebook that “We heard back from David Wolpe and he appears to be willing to have a conversation with us and the Pagan community at HDS, once the semester starts.”

Holli Emore, executive director of Cherry Hill Seminary, had less luck, telling The Wild Hunt that she had invited Wolpe “to join me one day soon, perhaps on a Zoom call, to chat about how we can better understand each other.”

The rabbi responded, “I have been deluged with advocacies, requests for dialogue and so forth. The article did not and does not address the current pagan [sic] communities nor was it intended to.”

That makes me feel so much better. As she put it, “While his message to me was cordial, it is clear that he has no intention of revisiting his lack of research or redressing the feelings of the many he has slighted.”

The problem is defining Paganism. We have a long history of small-p paganism meaning “outside any [monotheistic] religion.”  This is the straw man pummeled by Wolpe and others, such as the British journalist Louise Perry, whose article “We Are Repaganizing” appeared only two months earlier in the interdenominational Christian magazine First Things.[2]The story about the babies’ bones sounds like the old anti-Catholic folklore that there are babies buried under every convent.

Her borrowed definition of “paganism” ias not “an interest in entrails or in praying to Jupiter. Rather, [but]  a fundamentally different outlook on the world, and on the sacred.”

But Christianity takes a perverse attitude toward status and puts that perversity at the heart of the theology. “God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong” is a baffling and alarming claim to anyone from a society untouched by the strangeness of the Jesus movement.

And that led to converting Pagans by the sword, but we won’t go there. Look over here at the cathedral! And furthermore, as the legalization of abortion proves, “the Western world has arguably always remained more pagan than Christian. In some ways Christianity has been more of a veneer than a substantial reality.”[3]She quotes from Steven Smith’s Pagans and Christians in the City.

The Christian writer Rod Dreher, with two bestsellers to his name (The Benedict Option and Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents), is also promoting the view that there was no morality in the ancient world (outside, perhaps, the imperial province of Judea) until Christianity arrived.[4]Sorry, Confucius. Sorry, Socrates.

The book I finished last night, Pagan America, will be out from Regnery in March. The author, John Daniel Davidson, is not really talking about Wiccans and suchlike (though they do get significant mention), as much as he is talking about how the kinds of evils that permeated Greco-Roman culture, and that were eliminated by the triumph of Christianity, are coming roaring back now that Christianity has gone into abeyance in the West

Where does that leave today’s capital-P Pagans? You cannot accept Wolpe’s sidestepping of the issue because there are other singers in the choir, like John Daniel Davidson, who are apparently are happy to mix the two, jumping from “pagan = irreligious” to “Your gods are demons.”

(Davidson apparently wants to junk this silly “freedom of religion” idea and put the government firmly on the side of Christianity — his book’s subtitle is “The Decline of Christianity and the Coming Dark Age.”)

So we cannot get away with offering a pagan/Pagan (polytheist-animist) distinction. The cultural tides are moving. The secular talkers of both the right and left have moved from “Pagans don’t exist” to “they are bunch of silly New Agers” to the point of  “viewing with concern.” Pagan readers, don’t be surprised to be asked for your position on sacrificing babies.

Notes

Notes
1 For Wolpe the exemplar of this “paganism” is, of course, Donald Trump, that notorious tree-hugger. But it’s an election year.
2 The story about the babies’ bones sounds like the old anti-Catholic folklore that there are babies buried under every convent.
3 She quotes from Steven Smith’s Pagans and Christians in the City.
4 Sorry, Confucius. Sorry, Socrates.

2 thoughts on “The Creeping Menace of ‘Paganism’

  1. Pitch313

    If Wolpe’s piece were not published in The Atlantic, I’d tell you that I read much the same plot dynamic in lots of comics, science fiction and other books, watched it in a bunch of movies and on TV, looked at in ads heard it some some music, and witness it it again and again in current events.

    A “Them” jeopardizes and undermines the “Us.” (Could it be Tribbles? Nah, it’s paganism.)

    Agit prop promoting the notional superiority of some elements of a couple of monotheistic religions over the persistent ghostly haunting lures of old time paganism is still agit prop. And need so be regarded as agit prop.

  2. Allegra

    Recently I have been thinking, “Maybe I was wrong to completely throw out the Abrahamic Religions, possibly there is some wisdom there.” I would like to thank all these scholars for reminding me that nope, I’m not missing out.

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