Talking Paganism in the Mainstream

Ross Douthat, conservative columnist for the New York Times, has stirred some Pagan feathers with a column arguing that rather than becoming fully secular, the US may be moving away from a transcendentalist religiosity (such as that of Christianity and Judaism) and towards “paganism”, which he describes as a religion of “this world” as opposed to one focused on some other world or afterlife. He followed up with this piece, further expanding on these ideas and suggesting that the “civic religion” of the United States may be moving away from Christianity and its paradigms.

Douthat is clearly unenthused at the prospect that his theory is correct, but I think he is onto something. He almost puts his finger on what is happening in the US as support for mainstream religion fades.

Meanwhile, there have been Pagan responses. John Beckett makes some good points in the linked piece.

My take on all of this is that Douthat’s analysis is fundamentally flawed. He is extropolating trends that are real, but his worldview prevents him from being able to understand what he is seeing.

Yes, the US is abandoning Christianity, and it’s doing it rapidly. That doesn’t eliminate the religious impulses of Americans–the desire for meaning, sense of place in the Universe, connectedness with others of like mind, tutelary principles, and ritual observances. It just means that they aren’t getting those itches scratched by a tradition created by preliterate Bronze Age goatherds and laden with horrific history and values.

I think that what is happening is that Americans are moving away from old institutional religions that do not work for them, and are gravitating to individual religious practices that are life-affirming, optimistic, kind, inclusive and fun. In the process, they don’t want to have to pretend that they believe a lot of hokum that clearly doesn’t pass rational muster.

With skepticism on the rise, I don’t think that Paganism as it is widely practiced in the community is likely to hit the sweet spot for such folk. It is unlikely that Americans will give up on resurrection from the dead and talking shrubbery to instead subscribe to astrology and literal magic and not one, but thousands of invisible, supernaturally powerful People.

I think, in fact, that the culture is moving directly towards what we Atheopagans are already doing: accepting the cosmology of science as real, and developing practices and observances that bring meaning, connection and principles to a person’s life while understanding that gods, spirits, and magic are found in stories, not reality.

So it’s not a surprise that we are growing rapidly.

Personally, I doubt that the “civic religion” used in public ceremonies is going to become what Douthat calls “pagan”. What I think is more likely is that it will become more diverse, as court rulings affirm that Christian-prayer-only invocations to start public meetings are illegal and public expectation of more inclusiveness grows. And it will transcend the fundamental meanness and judgment of the Christianity it supplants.

These are good things. Watching the trend lines, we can only be encouraged.

As I and others have noted before, Paganism and “witchcraft” are having a moment. That means that throughout the nation, people–particularly young people–are exploring the trappings of Pagan religious practice, at least, and discovering that building an altar, lighting candles, burning incense, etc. feels good. They are discovering experientially what we know to be true: ritual is healthy for us. Presumably, some portion of those who are now in this experimental phase will learn more, read books, etc. Their spirituality will be shaped and informed by core axioms such as I can do this myself–I don’t need someone to do it for me; these symbolic actions feel meaningful and important; my spirituality is mine to create as I see fit.

These are fundamentally Pagan principles in my opinion. While there are Pagan paths that require initiation by more experienced followers and which expect all followers to do things a particular way, these traditions are not seeing the kinds of mounting interest that is showing up for the do-it-yourselfers right now.

We have entered a moment where the follow-your-own-spiritual-path ethos of the Sixties counterculture has reached a tipping point in the mainstream culture with the do-as-religious-leaders-say-you-must model of the Abrahamic religions, and the latter is (finally!) giving way to the former. This is an unmitigated good: religious institutions which lean heavily on obedience are generally authoritarian, bigoted, exploitative and corrupt.

Freedom of religion isn’t just freedom to sign onto some institution’s program of instruction and control; it is freedom truly to seek and find the religious path that fulfills, inspires, moves and motivates the seeker. What we are seeing now is a long-overdue transition to a society in which the spiritual “norm” is shifting from one of institutional obedience to one of individual fulfillment.

This can only be a positive development. Much as the Abrahamic religions wish for us to be “a flock of sheep”, we are not that: we are complex and unique individuals for whom one-size-fits-all conformity is not a natural spiritual state.

Douthat fears that the transcendent religions (those that seek to transcend this world for another “better” one) are being supplanted by immanentism (which holds that this world IS the sacred place). I hope he’s right about that, because it’s a far healthier way of looking at things.

But he misses the larger point that conformity in general is simply on the wane in the religious sphere. The nation is diversifying, and that includes its religious behavior and spirituality. We aren’t going to have a single “civic religion” any more.

Can’t happen quickly enough, if you ask me.

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