Towards a Rational Paganism

Recent discussions here at SO have focused on the future of philosophy of religion (if any), and some have queried where the field might go if, to some extent, it moves away from its traditional theistic/Christian emphases. I have maintained that certain discussions have pretty much played out. By now we know the arguments for and against the existence of God, and all of their recent refinements and reiterations. These have been copiously discussed and their statements and rebuttals rehearsed repeatedly and competently. Neither side has gained a decisive advantage. As an atheist, I naturally feel that atheists have had the better of the debate. Theists obviously will feel otherwise. At the end of the day, though, John Hick’s conclusion seems warranted: The world is such that it may be rationally interpreted in either naturalistic or religious terms. Maybe it is time to let that issue lie and recognize that both theism and atheism are reasonable options that may be espoused by reasonable people.

If we are looking for new directions for philosophical reflections on religion, what are the possibilities? I propose one topic here. Perhaps philosophers of religion can find something more fruitful to do than to endlessly agonize over the credentials of theism. In fact, when we consider the whole history of the human race, theism (monotheism) is a fairly recent innovation. Polytheism and animism are vastly older. Of course, due to aggressive proselytizing (not to mention dungeon, fire, and sword), the various monotheisms successfully supplanted the older religions over much of the earth. However, this conquest was not completed in Europe until about a thousand years ago, and there are signs that the victory of God over the gods might be only temporary.

One possible direction for PoR is to investigate the implications of pre-Christian, indeed, pre-monotheistic forms of religiosity. Is a rational paganism or animism possible today? At a deeper level would be the investigation of the nature of the sacred—how it is to be understood and what are its implications? For instance: Does a naturalistic perspective imply that, literally, nothing is sacred?  Is the category of the numinous simply disposable? Can it be explained away, e.g., a by-product of human evolutionary history? How should the theistic religions respond to the fact that the numinous seems to be a category too broad, too deep, and too ancient to be contained within a monotheistic context? Have not the historical attempts to so restrict it been instances of religious imperialism? As Hick thinks, do the various religions represent different attempts to partially conceptualize an ineffable sacred reality? Must religious pluralism be recognized as the inescapable implication of an enlightened understanding of the vastly multifarious human attempts to approach the sacred?

In recent decades, both in this country and elsewhere, there has been a tremendous resurgence of interest in pre-Christian paganism. Now, let me say right away that, frankly, some of this stuff looks pretty flaky to me, not much different from the trance channeling or crystal healing of the New Age nonsense. I won’t say which parts look silly, since I see no need to give gratuitous offense to anyone. Any broad cultural movement is bound to have some asinine or offensive exemplars. Should any Christian be tempted to sneer at fatuous or disturbing forms of paganism, however, pagans have a cornucopia of tu quoque examples to gather from the 2000-year history of Christianity.

My purpose here is to outline the nature of a rational paganism, one that makes contact with ancient paganism, so far as it can be reconstructed, and tries to recapture the immediacy and accessibility of the sacred, but which places paganism within the context of modern science and modern ethical norms. I don’t anticipate going back to some of the institutions or practices of ancient pagans—serfdom and human sacrifice, for instance. Neither can I imagine going back to a literal belief in Thor with his hammer or one-eyed Odin with his spear. I certainly do not think that the stories of the Prose Edda are any sillier than some of the things literally believed by fundamentalist Christians and Muslims. However, a pagan fundamentalism is not desirable either.

First, a bit of history. I concentrate on the Scandinavian and Teutonic pagans of northern Europe for purely personal reasons. They are my ancestors. Among surnames, “Parsons” is about as English as you can get. The English, of course, are descendants of the Anglo-Saxons, who lived on the Baltic shores of Germany before invading Britain in the 5th Century. Over time, the Anglo-Saxons mixed with the indigenous Celts. The Danes invaded in the 9th Century, and, though checked by Alfred the Great, they were ceded nearly half of England—the Danelaw. In 1066 the Normans invaded, and, though they spoke French, their ancestry was Norse. So, the forebears of the English people were Celt, Anglo-Saxon, and Scandinavian.

Before they were Christians, my ancestors were pagans. The Scandinavians and the Anglo-Saxons worshipped Tiu (Tyr), Woden (Odin), and Thor; some of our weekdays are still named after them. The Celts had their own pantheon, and their priests were the famous druids. We know something about the Germanic/Scandinavian and Celtic mythologies and cultic practices. There are Roman records, such as Tacitus, and the Icelandic Eddas and Sagas written down by Christians in the 13th Century. Also, we know of some pagan religious practices from the condemnations the Church made against them. For instance, we know that pagans worshipped at remote shrines on the hills or in the woods, and that they venerated natural objects such as stones, trees, and springs. As is well known, some of the pagan festivals were taken over and remade as Christian holidays. One of the most important still retains its name derived from the pagan goddess Eostre.

But what were the common beliefs and day-to-day religious practices of the pagan people of northern Europe?  That is hard to know in any detail, since pagan peoples were preliterate and since the Christian Church suppressed pagan belief and practice. To a large extent we must rely upon imaginative reconstruction when we ask about the customs and beliefs of preliterate peoples.

Surely, the religion of the northern pagans was in many ways similar to the beliefs and practices of the pagan Greeks as recorded in the Iliad. For Homer’s Greeks, the gods were accessible. Even the high Olympian deities often appeared to mortals and interacted with them in various ways, as when gray-eyed Athena appears to Achilles to admonish him not to kill Agamemnon. Achilles is not at all awed or particularly surprised by this theophany. Admittedly, as the son of a goddess he was more frequently in contact with deities than most, but, still, he reacts as if such encounters were nothing extraordinary. The more minor deities were as near as the rivers, woods, and mountains. You could hardly go through a day without at some point coming into the presence of a god or demigod. The divine was ubiquitous.

When the northern peoples were converted to Christianity, the gods had to give way to God. Instead of innumerable deities, there was only one, and this God was one of infinite majesty and infinite power. However, such attributes also made him infinitely distant from the mundane. By contrast, Thor was a good ol’ boy. With his red beard and big hammer, he, like his worshipers, liked nothing better than to administer a good butt-kicking and then sit down to an enormous feast washed down with tubs of beer. The Christian God, in his awesome, solitary splendor, was remote, distant, and far above earthly things. Of course, the Church, recognizing that the people still hankered for gods and goddesses that were near and approachable, made innumerable saints to mediate between God and humans. Indeed, some saints seem to have been syncretized with pagan deities.

There was one big catch, though. You could not approach the divine on your own. You had to do it through the Church, using Christian priests and Christian liturgy. No freelance worshipping. You had to worship in a church and in public, not hidden in the woods somewhere so that nobody could see what kinds of abominations you might be practicing. The Church held the Keys to the Kingdom and jealously guarded them. Particularly forbidden was any form of “idolatry,” such as worshipping natural objects or forces. For pagans, the divine is where you find it, and it can be found all around—in the voices of the wind, in the waxing and waning of the moon, in the mysteries of sex and childbirth, in the grandeur of mountains and the sea, and in the cycle of the seasons. The Church, however, strictly cautioned against the worship of the creation rather than the Creator.

So, for those of us for whom Christianity is no longer a live option, yet to whom it seems that an experience of the numinous is a vital human concern, can we revive something of the religious awareness of pre-Christian people? I suggest below some characteristics of a rational paganism:

1)  A modern-day paganism would have a pantheistic worldview. Pantheism regards the cosmos itself as the only object commensurate with our capacity for awe and wonder. The opening lines of Carl Sagan’s original Cosmos series perfectly capture this sense:

“The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplation of the Cosmos stirs us—there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know that we approaching the greatest of mysteries.”

In the pantheist’s view, there is no more genuinely religious feeling than the awe that many notable scientists have expressed when they reflect on their subject matter. The sublimely beautiful peroration that ends Darwin’s Origin would be another expression of this experience:

“There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers having been breathed into a few forms or into one; and that whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

Pantheism explicitly rejects any notion of the supernatural or the transcendent, and instead regards the sacred as natural and immanent. It repudiates the idea that there is a non-physical reality “behind” or “beyond” the universe. Stories about gods and goddesses might have rich symbolic and artistic value (see below), but they are not to be taken literally. Pantheists reject the idea of sacred supernatural persons and instead find the sacred in nature and in the experience of deep connections with other sentient beings. Proper worship for the pagan does not consist in bowing, kneeling, or prostrating oneself before an anthropomorphic super-person, or in making prayerful supplications to such putative beings.

The elevated sense of wonder and awe in contemplation of the night sky or the vastness of mountains, sea, or desert, or of the perfection of a single small creature, is, for the pagan, a far truer worship. Moments of true, deep connection with other sentient creatures, human or non-human, likewise bear a numinous quality and likewise evoke a response of awe and gratitude. Great art or music can elevate as much as nature. Speaking personally, I have found far more of the divine in the symphonies of Anton Bruckner than I ever did in innumerable Sunday mornings sitting in church pews.

William Wordsworth captured beautifully in “Tintern Abbey,” the “sense sublime” that pagans have experienced:

“And I have felt

A presence that disturbs me with the joy

Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused,

Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,

And the round ocean and the living air,

And the blue sky, and in the mind of man.”

2) Pagans recognize the power, beauty, and indispensability of myth. The word “myth” is unfortunately denigrated these days. Often you see editorials or other polemical pieces that will castigate “myth” by putting it in opposition to “fact.” As I tell my classes, however, when the topic comes up, myths are stories that are true but not factual. That is, some stories can teach us deep truths even though they never really happened. The best literature rises to the status of myth. Huck Finn and Jim never rafted down the Mississippi, but the lesson of Twain’s masterpiece is deep: Huck, the archetypical, ignorant, “po’ white trash” southerner, the very kind of person identified as most virulently racist, comes to recognize that Jim’s humanity is equal to his own.

Actually, my tastes favor an artist despised by Twain: Richard Wagner. I consider Wagner’s four-opera sequence Der Ring des Nibelungen to be humanity’s single greatest artistic achievement. Period. What makes it so incomparably great is not only its musical genius, but Wagner’s brilliant synthesis of the Norse/Germanic mythology to convey a profound lesson about the nature of power and how powerless it can be when moral authority is squandered. Wotan stoops to treachery, deceit, and greed to win Valhalla for the gods, and so abjures his role as the protector of honesty and fair play. Once his moral authority is lost, not even Wotan, the most powerful being in the world, can make things right, and his complex schemes to correct things all collapse and the gods are doomed. Wagner, in short, drew upon great myth to create a great myth of his own.

Paganism recognizes that myth has a power to touch the deepest elements of the human psyche and to mold our awareness if deep truths in a way that no bland statement of fact or even logical argument can. To modify an insight of H.L. Mencken’s: A single great myth can be worth a thousand syllogisms. We need syllogisms, of course. Nothing can take the place of logical argument. Further, there are contexts in which carefully crafted logical arguments can be tremendously effective. Still, humans were story-tellers for ages before they discovered science or philosophy. Great myths tell us deep truths about who we are and how to live and what is right. Paganism celebrates the great myths and encourages people to discover and enjoy them.

Of course, the biggest danger with myth is that you might become so enamored of your myths that you start taking them literally. How do you enjoy myths but avoid the temptation to start taking them literally? Well, there really is not much danger that even a true Wagner-phile like me is going to start thinking that there really were Teutonic gods who stood around Valhalla singing splendidly to each other. Still, as the history of religion abundantly demonstrates, many people have taken their myths at face value. There is no easy or obvious solution here, but maybe you can keep reminding people of the bad things that happen when myths are taken literally. When people start taking their myths literally, persecution, or at least obscurantism, can’t be far down the road. Even polytheism, though it was historically far more tolerant than monotheism, can engage in persecution. Let’s not forget that Socrates was condemned by a polytheistic society on the contradictory charges of being an atheist and of introducing new gods.

3. Paganism sees humans as biological organisms, that is, as natural products of a natural universe, and not as having been planned, created, or intended any more than any other organic creature. Clearly, humans have capacities than no other animal has. Some humans can do integral calculus; some can understand The Critique of Pure Reason; some can compose in iambic pentameter. No nonhuman animal can do these things (and neither can most humans). Yet paganism accepts fully the conclusion of Darwin’s Descent of Man, that human capabilities developed by an evolutionary process from animal ones. Humans are in fact related, in the most literal sense, to all other living things. Humans are part of the biosphere, and so part of the cosmos. The cosmos is not something separate from us. We are a small but integral part of it, no more and no less than the quark, the jaguar, or the Milky Way.

It follows that pagans reject the idea of a non-physical spirit, mind, or soul. Souls are needed only if brains are not enough, just as God is needed only if nature is not enough. Paganism affirms the sufficiency of the physical.

The upshot of these affirmations is that being human grants one no special privilege to despoil, abuse, or waste any part of nature. Here are some points pagans will think it is wise to ponder:

In less than one human lifetime the earth’s human population has tripled to 7.1 billion.

By the middle of this century, the human population is projected to reach nearly 10 billion.

By mid-century the world will need 70% more food production.

Ocean acidification, a consequence of fossil fuel burning, dissolves calcifying plankton, which lie at the base of the ocean’s food chain.

While the human population explodes, about 25% of mammal species are endangered as well as 43% of amphibians, 29% of reptiles, and 14% of birds.

A third of the world’s fisheries are fished out or degraded.

40% of the world’s coral reefs have been destroyed or degraded.

Are these trends sustainable? Indefinitely? Will science save us as it has so often in the past? The world’s food supply is now entirely dependent on scientific agricultural methods, chemical fertilizers, insecticides, etc. Can we count on continued innovation—GMOs maybe—to keep us fed? Will we be able to feed 10 billion? 20 billion?

Maybe, in fact, some of the above claims are alarmist and overstated, and things are not that dire. Wasn’t Paul Ehrlich’s pessimistic prophecy The Population Bomb proven wrong? But even taking the most optimistic view would seem to imply only that we can postpone the date that the Malthusian chickens will come home to roost. Someday—maybe in the lifetimes of some of those now living and maybe not—the earth will reach its carrying capacity. What then?

Of course, paganism offers no panaceas, but its emphasis on the fundamental connectedness of humans with other organisms and the broader cosmos implies that it is vitally important to ask how human goals and activities impact other organisms and the earth itself.

4) Paganism will be non-hierarchical, non-patriarchal, non-institutional, non-authoritarian, and non-evangelizing. There will be no pagan popes, bishops, ayatollahs, caliphs, or rabbis. It should hardly need saying that pagans will respect total equality of the sexes. Pagan leaders will not have the role of enforcing an orthodoxy or imposing authority of any kind. As with any coherent group, there will be a commonality of belief and perspective among pagans, and these will be reinforced by teaching and example. However, pagan belief will not be frozen into dogma or ossified into a creed. Pagans will not seek converts. Their attitude will be one of total tolerance towards any group or persons similarly willing to tolerate them.

Will pagans build churches and hold weekly meetings, while bored kids squirm, exasperated moms reproach, and anxious dads check their watches to see how long to kickoff time?  I hope not.

As I see it, pagans would form informal communities, like the early Christians. In general, the aim of pagan religiosity would be to return a sense of enchantment and delight in the experience of the natural world—as the romantic poets attempted, but without their antiscientific animus. Pagans would also restore a sense of sacred time and space—as many modern pagans have already attempted to do. Since prehistoric times the changing of the seasons have been celebrated: The summer solstice, the autumnal equinox, the winter solstice, and the vernal equinox. Also, certain places have been seen as particularly evocative of the divine. I recently saw the Angel Oak, near Charleston, SC.  Beats any church I have ever been in. Finally, the bonds that attach us to other sentient creatures, human and nonhuman, need to be celebrated and affirmed.

Lots more could be said on all these points, of course. But this is meant merely as an outline and an adumbration of principles and topics for further discussion. I imagine that evangelical Christians will see pagan religiosity as a thin gruel, an overly-refined, artificial consolation for tea-sipping secular intellectuals who can’t quite face up to the consequences of their atheism. To be perfectly honest, this is just how I viewed the liberal Christian religiosity of many of my professors at Candler School of Theology (Emory University) in the 1970s. They could not believe the old creeds, but they could not quite give them up either. Likewise, I think that hardheaded atheists will see the position I have sketched here as a mushy attempt both to have cake and to eat it. They will advocate being made of sterner stuff and rejecting dopey musings about “the sacred.” Embrace the void, they will say. Create your own meaning, since there is none “out there,” and don’t get all misty and Sagan-esque on us, going on poetically about the cosmos. Sheesh.

In response, I deny that there is anything the least bit softheaded about paganism. Hey, are you calling Ragnar Lothbrok a pansy? He’ll chop your gizzard out and feed it to his raven. No, I think that a rational paganism of the sort I outline here is a tough-minded response to what I regard as two facts: (1) The universe, of which we are a part, is a physical system that obeys physical laws and all causes are physical causes. (2) The numinous is a category universally recognized and respected across cultures and across time. It is not going away, and those who have encountered the numinous in some context regard it as deeply significant. Rational paganism is a way of accommodating both these truths in a way that does not diminish either one.