Tuesday, June 11, 2019

The New Paganism

When a man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything. This oft-repeated sentence is usually ascribed to G.K. Chesterton. Whoever first said it, modern history has seemed fairly hell-bent on confirming it. Hence the appeal of all-encompassing 20th-century political ideologies. Hence too the revival of various forms of paganism, from astrology to witchcraft, in our contemporary religious marketplace. And one can be fairly certain that these trends have acquired mainstream salience when David Brooks decides to devote his NY Times column to them! (See "The Age of Aquarius, A;; Over Again!, The NY Times, June 10, 2019).

Brooks, of course, draws on significant research that has been produced in recent years - including a 2018 Pew poll, which revealed that 29% of Americans may believe in astrology (as opposed to the mere 22% who identify as mainline Protestants), and a National Science Foundation survey, which suggested that 44% of 18-24 year olds see astrology as somewhat or very "scientific." Of course, anyone familiar with, say, Saint Augustine's writings will know that astrology has been a powerful competitor and challenge to Christianity for a very long time!

Of particular interest is an essay by Tara Burton in The American Interest ("The Great Awokening: The Power of Progressive Occultism"). Burton sees "Progressive occultism" as "the de facto religion of millennial progressives: the metaphysical symbol set threaded through the worldly ethos of modern social justice activism," whose "rise parallels the rise of the religious 'nones,' and with them a model of spiritual and religious practice that's at once intuitional and atomized." She sees "contemporary 'witch culture'," as "the cosmic counterbalance to Trumpian evangelicalism. It's at once progressive and transgressive, using the language of the chaotic, the spiritually dangerous, and (at times) the diabolical to chip at the edifices of what it sees as a white, patriarchal Christianity that had become a de facto state religion."

All of this leaves me with several reactions.

1. Obviously, all of this was already happening before the 2016 election. As with so much else, however, the rise of Trump may have exacerbated these problematic societal trends, but he has not caused them and his inevitable exit will not resolve them. We need to re-learn how to address fundamental civilizational problems without primary reference to President Trump.

2. "White, patriarchal Christianity" may well see itself as "a de facto state religion," thanks to its decades-long, ill-advised alliance with the Republican party. In fact, however, it is at least as accurate - and in the long term probably more so - to see the Trump phenomenon as the successful rise of a post-religious, populist conservatism, which will be no more committed to traditional religious and moral commitments than "progressive occultism." 

3. Burton's key observation, I think, is how this "model of religious practice" is simultaneously "intuitional and atomized." Religions rarely succeed without requiring serious structural and behavioral commitments. Successful religions make demands that, to some extent, subordinate one's individualism to some higher loyalty. How sustainable in the long term are purportedly religious practices that exist primarily as an expression of their adherents' alienation from organized religion, without creating an alternatively structured community with values higher than simply individual autonomy?

4. For traditional forms of Christianity, the ancient competition with paganism is relevant once more, although this time it is Christianity that seems to be in decline and paganism that seems to ascendant. In addition to dusting off the traditional apologetic against astrology, etc., it is necessary to engage in a more radical self-examination about why and how traditional forms of Christianity have become so widely alienating to so many and in this way. 

5. In particular, the decades-long unholy alliance between some forms of traditional Christianity and the Republican party needs to be confronted and the corrupting effect it has had on traditional religion fully acknowledged.

6. The good news, such as it is, is that, as Brooks observes "secularism never really comes. Humans are transcendent creatures who have spiritual experiences and instinctively appeal to supernatural powers. Even in the most secular parts of society, there is great and unfulfilled spiritual yearning." Drawing on "re-enchantment" theory, Burton notes how those "alienated from a Christianity" increasingly seen "as repressive, outmoded, and downright abusive," have "used the language, the imagery, and the rituals of modern occultism to re-enchant its seeming secularism." While challenging those so situated to re-engage with a God greater than themselves and their chimerical autonomy, traditional religions need to appreciate this re-enchantment and appropriately repent their collaboration in the modern world's self-imposed disenchantment. 

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