Opinion: The return of paganism

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.” Religious belief and practice now polarizes our politics in a way they didn’t a few generations back.

The simplest explanation is the secularization story — in which modern societies inevitably put away religious ideas as they advance in wealth and science and reason, and the decline of institutional religion is just a predictable feature of a turn away from supernatural belief.

But the secularization narrative is insufficient, because even with America’s churches in decline, the religious impulse has hardly disappeared. In the early 2000s, over 40 percent of Americans answered with an emphatic “yes” when Gallup asked them if “a profound religious experience or awakening” had redirected their lives; that number had doubled since the 1960s, when institutional religion was more vigorous. A recent Pew survey on secularization likewise found increases in the share of Americans who have regular feelings of “spiritual peace and well-being.”

Which is why lately I’ve become interested in books and arguments that suggest that there actually is, or might be, a genuinely post-Christian future for America — and that the term “paganism” might be reasonably revived to describe the new American religion.

A fascinating version of this argument is put forward by Steven D. Smith, a law professor at the University of San Diego, in his new book, “Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars From the Tiber to the Potomac.” Smith argues that much of what we understand as the march of secularism is something of an illusion, and that behind the scenes what’s actually happening in the modern culture war is the return of a pagan religious conception, which was half-buried (though never fully so) by the rise of Christianity.

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 are to be sought in a fuller communion with the immanent world.

This paganism is not materialist or atheistic; it allows for belief in spiritual and supernatural realities. It even accepts the possibility of an afterlife. But it is deliberately agnostic about final things, what awaits beyond the shores of this world, and it is skeptical of the idea that there exists some ascetic, world-denying moral standard to which we should aspire. Instead, it sees the purpose of religion and spirituality as more therapeutic, a means of seeking harmony with nature and happiness in the everyday — while unlike atheism, it insists that this everyday is divinely endowed and shaped, meaningful and not random.

Is a this-world-focused civil religion enough to declare the rebirth of paganism as a faith unto itself, rather than just a cultural tendency within a still-Christian order?

It seems to me that the answer is not quite, because this new religion would lack a clear cultic aspect, a set of popular devotions, a practice of ritual and prayer of the kind that the paganism of antiquity offered in abundance.

Perhaps a prophet of a new harmonized paganism is waiting in the wings. Until then, those of us who still believe in a divine that made the universe rather than just pervading it should be able to recognize the outlines of a possible successor to our world-picture, while taking comfort that it is not yet fully formed.

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