Reflecting on Two Articles on a Post-Christian Future

Manny Tejeda-Moreno wrote an article, “Editorial: Douthat’s post-Christian future, a response” for The Wild Hunt, responding to a New York Times op-ed “The Return of Paganism”, an article written by Ross Douthat.  Rather than dig through both articles, I found things within Tejeda-Moreno’s article I felt were worth responding to. Tejeda-Moreno’s response to Douthat highlights things that I felt were worth exploring, as I have seen Pagan and polytheist communities struggle through the fourteen years I have on-and-off called myself a Pagan and have been a polytheist.

It is pretty clear Ross Douthat is not a part of any modern Pagan religion, and he has been an op-ed writer for several years. I am not shocked Tejeda-Moreno is dissatisfied with the article. Over the course of his life Douthat has been a Pentecostal and a Catholic and was educated at Harvard. He is not only writing from outside our communities essentially about us, as Tejeda-Moreno clearly points out, he is doing so poorly informed.

His lamentations that there may be more witches than members of the United Church of Christ should be evidence enough that he is mourning or at least ill at ease in the post-Christian future he sees on the horizon. I find this notion at odds, though, with those exercising levers of power and in the majority. The most prominent and numerous members in US society are some flavor of monotheist, predominantly Christian. Those who are not Christians in positions of power, such as political or academic settings, are often agnostic or atheist. All tend to default to some variation of ‘hierarchy of religion’ in which one’s personal flavor (Christian, atheist, or agnostic) is the summit of the hierarchy. Pagan and polytheist religions are often derided for their belief in ‘demons/delusions’, ‘outmoded ideas’, ‘dead gods’, and the like, treated more as curiosities than anything worthy of regard either in academia or in interfaith settings.

I echo Tejeda-Moreno’s disappointment with Douthat’s assertion that Paganism is “some civic cult with supernatural experimentation driven by secret societies of literati weaving post-Christian intellectualism into society.” Modern Pagan religions are neither that organized nor that well-developed. Even if we were, intellectualism or rationalism is not the main philosophy of a good number of Pagans or polytheists.  We certainly do not have the numbers for civic cultus, nor the structures which would make it relevant so far as I can see.

In the first place, modern Pagan religions do not even internally agree on what Paganism itself is. The term is so nebulous as to be unwieldy, effectively ending in some vague sense of ‘not Christian’. Some Pagans who use the word as their primary means of identification are polytheist, believing in and worshiping many Gods. Some Pagans who use the word as their primary means of identification are atheist, believing that there are no Gods and worship nothing. Saying anything accurate when even basic and essential matters of theology are disagreed upon internal to specific religions within Paganism is almost impossible. For instance: Are Wiccans theist? If so, which Wiccans, if any, are theist and which, if any, are atheist?

Then there comes issues of who gets to decide who gets to be called Wiccan in the first place. Gatekeeping, who gets to do it, and who has the right to gatekeep specific Pagan religions are a series of ongoing issues in many Pagan and polytheist religions. Without these basic methods of organization decided, it matters little whether one says “Wiccans are theist” or “Wiccans are atheist” because the ground upon which the matter would rest shifts dependent on the practitioner and not the identifier itself.  The reason I go over words and their meanings so often in my posts is because of this ongoing problem.  There is a consistent need to reinforce what words mean because the language in Pagan communities is inconsistently applied and used.  I can get more to the core of what I am by using the word polytheist rather than Pagan because, where Pagan is a very mushy word, polytheist says what it is right on the tin.

I have a bone to pick with Tejeda-Moreno, and that is the same bone I have with everyone and anyone who uses the term ‘organized religion’ without including our own religions.  The term organized religion means what it says, “A structured system of faith or worship” though most associate it with monotheist religions.  Every single religion is organized or it is not a religion.  Were Tejeda-Moreno to have written something like “Christian religions have failed their faithful and the broader society in two ways” or “Monotheist religions have failed their faithful and the broader society in two ways” there would be less issue from me.  It’s still an over-generalization of centuries of history, but it would be more accurate than to just hand Christianity and other monotheist religions the phrase organized religion.

Further, setting up Paganism and organized religions as being against one another is nonsensical.  The “continued toleration of sexual abuse and misogyny exposes all the other moral failings” regardless of which religion it is in question, and Paganism is no more immune to this than Catholicism is.  Indeed, it is also true that “Individuals working to experience their authentic selves are deluged by moral pronouncements serving only to layer guilt and self-hatred” is equally applicable to the Pagan and polytheist communities.  Arguably, it is something that most faith communities engage in rather than the work of their religions’ callings.

The failure here is that Douthat fails to recognize that people should be free to believe in a religion that offers them meaning without ridicule.

I do not think that he fails to understand this so much as it is in his Catholic view that there are true and good religions and those that are not.  It’s also his mistake in assuming that we Pagans and polytheists only conceive as Gods belonging to Creation, and not able to be both immanent and transcendent, or one or the other.  His agreements with Steven Smith’s assessment of things rests on shaky ground as Smith commits pantheists and atheists to his view without even so much as bringing in contemporary Pagan or polytheist authors to his article while mischaracterizing those same religious movements.  In it, he ignores the lived religions of Pagans and polytheists and misses what immanent as well as transcendent Gods, Ancestors, and spirits do to the weltanschauung of the religions and people who believe in Them and worship Them.

Tejeda-Moreno continues:

He avoids a basic reality, as well: individuals are not turning away from organized religion. They are turning toward something that has meaning for them. It may be praxis, or it may be dogma; whatever the reason, they are invoking the fundamental human rights of thought, belief, and religion. Complaining about them as sinful distortions, or implying a divine force is preparing to act in retribution, is using fear in service of patriarchal oppression.

Again, I think Douthat isn’t avoiding a basic reality, but couching in terms familiar to himself and his religion.  Douthat’s point is made here in that regard, and it is a good one:

These descriptions are debatable, but suppose Smith is right. Is the combination of intellectual pantheism and 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. And that absence points to the essential weakness of a purely intellectualized pantheism: It invites its adherents to commune with a universe that offers suffering and misery in abundance, which means that it has a strong appeal to the privileged but a much weaker appeal to people who need not only sense of wonder from their spiritual lives but also, well, help.

Douthat goes on to say:

However, there are forms of modern paganism that do promise this help, that do offer ritual and observance, augury and prayer, that do promise that in some form gods or spirits really might exist and might offer succor or help if appropriately invoked. I have in mind the countless New Age practices that promise health and well-being and good fortune, the psychics and mediums who promise communication with the spirit world, and also the world of explicit neo-paganism, Wiccan and otherwise.

He’s not wrong in his assessment here.  One of the major appeals in Pagan and polytheist religions is that we have living relationships with our Gods, Ancestors, and spirits that in some way invite us to share in co-creating with Them.  We are invited to appreciate the beauty of our Holy Powers, the Worlds we inhabit, and so much more. Our Holy Powers occupy many places simultaneously that we can appreciate on multiple levels, including that of devotion, aesthetic, beauty, joy, and more.  We build relationships with our Holy Powers at our altars and in our statues.  We build relationships with Them in places They hold in high regard.  We build relationships with Them in sacred places in nature or our cities.  We build relationships with our Holy Powers when we bear jewelry or tattoos of Their forms, symbols or Names.  We build relationships with Them when we lay down offerings at a tree, look out to the Sun’s or Moon’s rise, feel Them in the breeze.  We build relationships with Them in the grip of writing a poem, knitting a blanket, or making a piece of art.

Douthat goes on with ill-conceived generalized histrionics that are wrong, namely in regards to ancient Roman elites.  Polytheism, not pantheism was the norm.  He is also forming his argument on shaky foundations for what it would take to form a living pagan religion under his view:

To get a fully revived paganism in contemporary America, that’s what would have to happen again — the philosophers of pantheism and civil religion would need to build a religious bridge to the New Agers and neo-pagans, and together they would need to create a more fully realized cult of the immanent divine, an actual way to worship, not just to appreciate, the pantheistic order they discern.

His point here is wrong.  Pagans and polytheists do not need pantheists or outside civil religionists.  We have our own philosophers, and for those who wish to engage in civil religions there are ample examples to follow.  We need not partner with pantheists or civil religionists to create a fully realized cult of the immanent divine because we possess all the tools, ability, and functions to do so within our own religions.  We already have everything Douthat is pointing out here.

Likewise, Tejeda-Moreno is wrong.

Whether we are discussing Witchcraft, Heathenry, or any other practice broadly described as Pagan, individuals are not turning away from organized faiths; they are turning toward something more meaningful to them. Pagans are re-wilding their faith interactions to the immanent and the spiritual, and few things are more dangerous to what is “organized” than what is “wild”.

Individuals are turning away from monotheist religions, not organized ones.  They are turning towards something more meaningful to them, that is true, but it is not something that is not organized, only organized in a different fashion.  We are re-wilding our religions insofar as our Gods, Ancestors, and spirits are immanently intertwined with the development of our religions.  What most who are coming into “Witchcraft, Heathenry, or any other practice broadly described as Pagan” are coming into is one where the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits are immanent and transcendent, not bound by us, our morality, our politics, or our views.  The Gods are the Gods, Their own, and we do not control Them.  The Ancestors are the Ancestors, Their own, and we do not control Them.  The spirits are the spirits, Their own, and we do not control Them.

It is not us who are re-wilding our religions.  If our religions are wild it is because the Holy Powers are not in our control.  We talk with our Holy Powers, we seek Their guidance, and whether through divination, omens, inspiration, or other means They make Their desires and wills known.  This does not mean we have no bearing on our religion.  We do, because it is in relationship with the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits that our religions are woven.  We can disagree with our Holy Powers, negotiate, ask, work with Them to different ends.  We can also agree with our Holy Powers, obey, negotiate, ask, do the work we are given.  We can have times where it is hard to know what They want, times where our lives are fallow, times where we are sure of what They want, and times where our lives are so full we are fit to burst.  These are lived relationships.

Ultimately, Mr. Douthat argues that the promises of Paganism are vacant. The rituals and prayers lack meaning and effect: “I don’t know how many of the witches who publicly hexed Brett Kavanaugh really expected it to work,” he writes. The same sentiment could be shared for those followers of the Christian god who prayed for hurricanes to turn away from the United States toward Mexico.

I think that this is fair on both sides.  So long as we are not living solid in our relationships with the Holy Powers, then I agree that “all the rituals and prayers lack meaning and effect”.  Without prayers bound in meaning, in relationship with our Holy Powers, they are merely words.  Perhaps the only effect they can carry is offense or disinterest. Without rituals made in relationship with our Holy Powers with clarity, discipline, and skill, it is so much empty action.  Without magic rooted in our worldviews crafted with discipline, and skill, again, it is empty action.

Rather than seeing, as Tejeda-Moreno does, that Douthat feels entitled to an explanation from Pagans and polytheists, I see that Douthat has fear of what we may bring to the table:

Until then, those of us who still believe in a divine that made the universe rather than just pervading it — and who have a certain fear of what more immanent spirits have to offer us — 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.

I agree with Tejeda-Moreno that Douthat “avoids the obvious remedy to his dilemma” which, for monotheists is that they are not “living up to their origins, whether those be the promise of salvation, submission, or, even more simply, love.”  I also think it is more complex than Tejeda-Moreno’s conclusion.  The problem with monotheist religions and philosophies derived from them is they seek to eliminate all others.  Those who espouse arguments like the ‘evolution of religion’ or the ‘Kingdom of God’ wants its particular religion (or lack thereof) to get to the top so it can install its hegemony over all the others beneath it.  Paganism is not the boogeyman here, but neither is hypocrisy.

What is sitting in the background of monotheist religions is that when any attains power it then seeks to crush or convert any other religion.  Calls to the faithful to evangelize, to destroy the Pagans, to convert the masses of the world are still being made.  As Douthat says:

Until then, those of us who still believe in a divine that made the universe rather than just pervading it — and who have a certain fear of what more immanent spirits have to offer us — 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.

What Douthat is afraid of is that we are going to be living in a post-Christian world and takes explicit comfort that a successor is not fully-formed to it yet.  After all, look at what the Christians did to the non-believers.  Why wouldn’t a Christian, having an understanding of the kinds of destruction such things brought, not be afraid of such things being brought down on them?  What Douthat and monotheists like him are afraid of is not just irrelevance, but that non-monotheist religions will make inroads, take up different power in different ways, and offer better futures than the one they’ve had the last two thousand or so years to build.  Their hegemony is slipping bit by bit, year by year.  They fear the loss of power.  They are afraid the futures we face without the hegemony of their religions and philosophies on our necks.  They are afraid of our Gods, Ancestors, and spirits.

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  1. January 2, 2019 at 10:42 am

    I haven’t read the articles you are responding to (and at this point, I don’t think I need to in order to understand their basic premises nor the directions of their discussions), but I’ve been seeing a lot of this sort of thing myself recently elsewhere…

    One of the terms that seems to be missing is “institutionalized religion.” I agree with you that there is no such thing as “religion” that isn’t “organized” (and anyone who then uses “spirituality” to mean something along those lines doesn’t know what they’re talking about…which is one of many reasons I object to atheists using the term “spirituality” for what amounts to “a sense of wonder” that they feel they are able to access via “science” as their motivating worldview…but that’s another topic!), but the difference between a religion having organized views and having institutional backing, codification, and power is gigantic. Wicca is an organized religion, thus, but generally not an institutional one, outside of a few larger organizations that generally only amount to a few hundred or thousand people. The constant mistaking of both “organized religion” and “institutionalized religion” with just simply “religion” by people in the various Pagan movements is one of the biggest impediments to making any actual progress on building some of those things that will confer legitimacy and create more successful engagements to those movements, and which people like Douthat fear the most.

    In other things I’ve seen recently–especially of the “science vs. religion, and religion is losing” variety–the confounding of “religion” to “Abrahamic religions” and likewise to “belief [in inaccurate creation stories, etc.]” is also very annoying, and yet so common and widespread that it beggars belief, as it were, that the people spouting such statements on the basis of “evidence-based science” and “unbiased looks” and so forth have not bothered to define the terms of their own arguments or to look at the historical nuances and biases built into their own linguistic and cultural usages, since apparently “science” doesn’t care about those things nor is it influenced by them (except when it is, which is ALWAYS!!!). But that’s a separate issue…

    Anyway, yes. 😉

    • January 4, 2019 at 6:13 am

      “One of the terms that seems to be missing is “institutionalized religion.””

      Yes, that is a very good point and one I should probably expand on quite a bit!

      “I agree with you that there is no such thing as “religion” that isn’t “organized”……people like Douthat fear the most.”

      It is absolutely huge. All religion is organized in some fashion. How much and to what degree is another thing.

      I may bang on about many of the sub-points you made in the parenthesis sometime down the road because I get bugged on that front too. It’s because of those ongoing misuses that so damned many of us are having to explain what in the fuck a wheel is and how we use it here. It isn’t just atheists misusing this because there are plenty of theistic Pagans and polytheists using words poorly or incorrectly like ‘spirituality’ when they mean ‘religion’ and using useless phrases like ‘spiritual but not religious’. Cut the bullshit. You’re religious or you’re not. You’re spiritual? Congratulations, there’s a religious backing to it somewhere even if you don’t know what it is, don’t want to know what it is, or cannot find what it is.

      I think that a lot of Pagan religions actually need to develop institutions because Pagan religions over and over again have shown that whether it is the Holy Powers or those in the religion, there are those expectations of their religious leaders, organizations, and to lesser extents their laity. I think that such institutions will rise sooner or later. I would welcome them heartily provided they serve their Holy Powers well and in so doing their communities. Douthat ought to be fearing that because when such good institutions come forward then a lot of folks will have places to turn to that isn’t in the arms of any of the monotheist religions.

      “In other things I’ve seen recently–especially of the “science vs. religion, and religion is losing” variety…since apparently “science” doesn’t care about those things nor is it influenced by them (except when it is, which is ALWAYS!!!). But that’s a separate issue…”

      I cannot tell you how much I despise the ridiculous ‘science v religion’ dichotomy, likewise ‘religion = Abrahamic religions”, and likewise ‘belief [in inaccurate creation stores, etc]’. Not the least because the dichotomy is ridiculous, that there are a lot of non-Abrahamic religions, and that belief in things is not irrational. The people who cling to such statements are doing little beyond professing their beliefs, not unlike certain sects of Protestant Christianity that ‘testify’ or ‘come to Jesus’. I think JMG nailed it on the head in describing the myth of progress as an ersatz religion because so many of the people espousing these very viewpoints are completely wrapped up in the belief in progress, and likewise the ‘evolution of religion’ style trappings in different kinds of costume. A lot of folks with these viewpoints are coming right out of that worldview. Most are completely blind to it, and if you do point it out will point their finger at you and shrilly ask why you’re against progress in almost the same fashion as a Christian for why I don’t worship Christ.

      It may seem like issues of the use of language and the ridiculous science v religion dichotomy separate issues, but for our communities they are part and parcel of why so many communities are so damned dysfunctional. If you cannot define who you are effectively then you cannot screen candidates for leadership and/or spiritual specialties. If the religious communities are consistently having to reinvent the wheel at basic definitions then any unity in that community is so diminished that effectively organizing, let alone making any lasting institutions are non-starters. Even if the communities are consistently looking to start institutions, so long as internal strife over things like basic theology get in the way we cannot even get to organizing effectively, let alone making lasting institutions. I cannot make a religious community with folks whose core beliefs clash with my own. I don’t know of anyone who can. There’s nothing to build a foundation on when we disagree so completely.

      • January 4, 2019 at 8:39 am

        Precisely…

        Sadly, I’m seeing this on institutional levels in other places now, too, e.g. one of the colleges where I teach. There is a lot of administrative lip service paid to things like “critical thinking” or “equity” and “inclusion,” but no definitions of those words (and often a resistance to even attempting to give an operational definition of them), no descriptions of what they look like in practice, and thus no metric for determining if they are occurring or not, despite their “prioritization” in the rhetoric, mission statements, and so forth of the overall organization. This is setting things up for failure entirely, and there doesn’t seem to be any willingness to admit that or confront the inherent problems in it.

        It’s so disheartening to see that this kind of thing is going on in several different, very unrelated fields of endeavor these days. I suspect this is a culture-wide phenomenon, thus, and a characteristic of where we’re at intellectually at the current historical juncture, which is sad, and does not portend well for the future.

  2. January 2, 2019 at 11:20 pm

    You make some excellent points here, and I found myself pleased that you reached the conclusion I did, since agreeing automatically makes both of us right. (I kid, I kid!)

    I will quibble with your opening statement, even though I understand how it likely happened. Tejeda-Moreno wrote an editorial, not an article. An article is news. An editorial is opinion.

    • January 3, 2019 at 12:02 am

      *laughs* Absolutely!

      That’s a good point there, and thank you for pointing it out. He did write an editorial.

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