Earlier this week, on Christmas Day no less, The Atlantic published an editorial entitled “The Return of the Pagans”. It’s behind a paywall, but you can read the whole thing for free at msn.com (also here).
The article is written by David Wolpe, who is an influential Jewish rabbi who has debated prominent atheists publicly. Predictably, the essay reflects the perspective of an Abrahamic transcendental monotheist. Lots of Pagans have responded to this article already (e.g., here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here). Some of the responses seem to miss the fact that, when Wolpe says “pagan”, he’s not talking about the people who self-identify as “Pagan” today: those witches and goddess worshippers and earth religionists and so on, who have been loosely congregating around the term “Pagan” since the late 1960s.
When Wolpe says “pagan”, he’s talking about the boogeyman of transcendental monotheism. He’s using the term in the same way that a lot of Catholic writers use the term. See for example Ross Douthat’s 2018 editorial in the New York Times (also published at Christmastime), similarly titled “The Return of Paganism”. ( My response to that editorial is here.) Right off the bat, Wolpe’s article begins by calling Trump “pagan”. Now, he’s obviously not saying that Trump belongs to the religion of self-identified Pagans. Rather, when he says “pagan” here, he clearly states that he’s talking about “wealth worship” and the “ideological imperialism of the ego”.
Admittedly, this is a sloppy use of the term “pagan”, especially considering that there are people who practice a religion they call “Paganism” today, and a lot of those Pagans already feel persecuted. My impression is that Wolpe is either ignorant of the existence of contemporary Pagans or he just doesn’t think there’s enough Pagans to care about.
And to some extent, I can’t blame him. Despite having great potential, contemporary Paganism has pretty much failed to realize that potential. The reasons are complex, but have a lot to do with the self-absorption of Pagans. And the reaction of many Pagans to Wolpe’s article is indicative of this. Pagans get excited when anybody bothers to talk about us, even if it’s negative. In fact, especially if it’s negative, because that feeds the Pagan persecution complex.
Getting back to Wolpe, his description of ancient paganisms is also pretty ignorant, but it’s the ignorance we’ve come to expect from people who are so immersed in their own religious narrative that they can’t be bothered to actually educate themselves. Wolpe writes, “Most ancient pagan beliefs systems were built around ritual and magic …” (okay so far) “… coercive practices intended to achieve a beneficial result.” The word “coercive” here is partly ( but not entirely) inaccurate, but the rest is fine. Wolpe does seem to miss the fact the same could also be said of the prayers and rituals of transcendental monotheists like himself.
Wolpe goes on to say that pagan belief systems “centered the self”. Now that’s just Wolpe’s ignorance shining through. Before the Axial Age, when the transcendental monotheisms arose, religion was far, far more community-oriented than anything we Westerners call religion today. The Axial Age actually conceived the modern sense of self. So Wolpe’s statement is simply ahistorical. But again, Wolpe apparently decided a priori that paganism is about materialism and egoism, and he projects that assumption backwards onto history to fit his thesis.
Wolpe then goes on to describe two versions of contemporary (small-p) paganism, a left-wing version which deifies nature and a right-wing version which deifies force (i.e., “wealth, political power, and tribal solidarity”). He calls the former “pantheism” and the latter “idolatry”. I’ve heard other people of Wolpe’s ilk call pantheism “idolatry” too. And Wolpe makes it clear that, in his mind, they are two of a kind, with this line, which the Atlantic editors adopted as the article’s tagline: “Hug a tree or a dollar bill, and the pagan in you shines through.” Here Wolpe apparently equates environmentalism and capitalism. (And now I am a little pissed.)
Wolpe argues that human beings should properly understand themselves as being both central and insignificant, central to God’s creation, but insignificant when compared to God. He urges us to hold both these two “truths”, that for us the world was created, but also that we are just ashes and dust. And he claims that, when we misunderstand this, the paganism of the right and the paganism of the left end up exaggerating one or the other.
Wolpe proceeds to elaborate on the links between the accumulation of wealth, the desire for power (over others), fascism, Nietzsche, the obsession with our physical appearances, and the “Promethean” quest for technological immortality-all part of the paganism of the right. What’s missing, he says, is humility. A lot more could be said about all this, but generally speaking, I agree that Wolpe’s list of modern woes is bad news and that genuine humility would be an antidote to a lot of this. But none of this is about the people who call themselves “Pagan” today.
(Interestingly, Wolpe blames the fall of Rome on this lack of humility. He appears to have forgotten that Rome fell after its conversion to Christianity, not the other way around, which might suggest that the fatal lack of humility is actually a Christian attribute, not a pagan one.)
Then Wolpe turns to the “paganism” of the left. Oddly enough, he starts (and ends) with animal rights thinkers who have attempted to erase the metaphysical distinction between human and other-than-human animals. Apparently, Wolpe finds this as disturbing as Trump and actual fascism! In an attempt to scandalize his readers, he points out that the belief that humans are merely animals could be used to support a decision by parents to remove a terminally ill child from a respirator. (Ooooookaaaay …. and your point is?)
And that’s all he has to say about the evils of the paganism of the left. Really, that’s it! On the right, Wolpe gives us power-hungry, wealth-hoarding, immortality-seeking narcissists, and on the left, he offers people who care about the suffering of animals and the parents of a terminally ill child with a horrible dilemma before them. I’ll keep that company, thank you very much. Needless to say, I don’t think Wolpe made his own best case here. But again, none of this is about contemporary Pagans.
Wolpe does nod to the manifold cruelties perpetrated “in the name of” the monotheistic faiths. Note how he absolves those faith institutions of any real guilt with those three words, as if to say, “Oh, that’s not real Christianity/Judaism/Islam”. While sidestepping those historical atrocities, Wolpe says that the important question is “what sorts of belief are most likely to lend themselves to respect for human life and flourishing.” I agree. But I don’t think I’m overreaching to say that the last 2,000 years of human history have made a convincing case that the transcendental monotheisms do not lend themselves to respect for human life and flourishing. The Abrahamic belief in the simultaneous submission of humans below God and the elevation of humans above nature has not, in fact, worked the magic that Wolpe believes in.
There’s two reasons for this, I think. First of all, I agree with Wolpe that it is important, both for our individual well-being and for our collective survival, to recognize something bigger than ourselves, something bigger than humanity, something that inspires deep humility in us. But God is not a good choice for this job, because “God” is an empty vessel. You can fill that symbolic jug with anything you want, projected from our individual subconsciouses and collective unconscious. It could be the stern judge God, the comforting mother God, the terrifying angry God, the erotic lover God, the absentee philosopher’s God, the ineffable mystic’s God, or so many other divine archetypes.
Regardless of whether you believe that God exists independently of our ideas about Him/Them, the fact is, God does not self-disclose in an unambiguous way that rational people can agree upon. And so, we end up filling that symbolic vacuum with all kinds of things, both good and bad. In fact, we end up filling the word God with our own egos. (Jung called this “inflation”.) That’s exactly what Wolpe claims that God is the cure for. But in fact, “God” is part of the problem.
There is something else, though, something that is bigger than humankind and does self-disclose in ways which are easier to discern and understand. And that something else is nature, the world, the universe. And it performs all the functions of God. It inspires awe and humility. It teaches us how to treat each other (more on that below). And yes, I even think it talks back to us when we are sad-it speaks in the voices of trillions of human and other-than-human beings and even the wind, the rain, and the sunshine.
Wolpe equates nature with the most violent and base behavior. His fear, like that of so many other monotheists, is that, in the absence of a transcendental ideal of Goodness, we will all turn into savages raping and eating each other. On the one hand, there’s not much evidence that the loss of one’s monotheistic faith actually leads to debauchery (I’ve lived that transition myself). And on the other hand, there is abundant evidence of savagery among believers.
But more importantly, Wolpe has an outdated and inaccurate understanding of nature. His education on the subject appears to have stopped with another one of the bogeymen of the monotheists, Darwin. “If we are nothing but animals,” Wolpe writes, “the laws of the jungle apply.” Wolpe has too low of an opinion of other-than-human animals (apparently, he hasn’t spent much time with them), and too high of an opinion of human animals.
As the indigenous scientist Robin Wall Kimmerer said in an interview on NPR, “I can’t think of a single scientific study in the last few decades that has demonstrated that plants or animals are dumber than we think. It’s always the opposite, right?” The fact is that discoveries are being made every day that other-than-human animals are far more intelligent and kind to each other (even across species) than Westerners have given them credit for.
I always find it interesting how we use the term “humane” in relation to our treatment of other-than-human animals. There’s good evidence that other animals can actually teach us humans a lot about the ideal we call “humaneness”. And there is at least as much cooperation in nature as there is competition. The emphasis on the competition in nature is a rhetorical strategy used by ideologues of capitalism old and new.
This is where contemporary Paganism-especially in its non-transcendental forms (like animism and naturalistic paganism)-have a lot of work to do. There’s been 2,000 years of indoctrination in this hierarchal belief in the “great chain of being” which placed humans “a little lower than angels” and cut us off from the rest of nature. Wolpe rightly acknowledges that fascism and climate change and even capitalism are real threats, but he fails to grasp how all of these threats arise out of the fundamental belief that human beings are separate from nature, separate from our bodies, and separate from one another. If there is any potential remaining in Paganism, it is the potential to teach us that we are not separate, and not just in our minds but in our bones and blood.
So, in conclusion …
1. Dear Fellow Pagans, this article isn’t even about you. So calm the fuck down. Yes, Wolpe uses the word “pagan”, but you don’t own the word. Modern Pagans borrowed it about 50 years ago. It was in use by Christians long, long before that. Like rebellious teenagers, the new Pagans adopted the term precisely because of how the term was used by Christians. (You don’t hear Satanists complaining about being misrepresented by Christians.) And those ancient non-Christian people who you idealize didn’t even call themselves “pagan” anyway. So get over yourselves. There’s a lot more to be concerned about these days than your (perceived) persecution. This kind of identity politics is a distraction from the real threats.
2. Dear Rabbi Wolpe, pick up a fucking history book. Preferably, one written after 1937 (see below). You’re embarrassing yourself. Might I also suggest some recent biology readings as well? Start with Frans de Waal’s works on bonobos or Peter Wohlleben’s The Inner Life of Animals.
3. Dear Atlantic Editors, I don’t know if you realized this, but Wolpe’s thesis is plagiarized, and he didn’t even work hard to hide his source. At one point, he quotes Arthur Toynbee’s* 1937 essay, “The Menace of the New Paganism”. Toynbee’s thesis is basically the same as Wolpe’s: Toynbee describes communism and fascism as forms of “postwar paganism”, and Wolpe describes environmental/animal rights activism and fascism as paganisms of the left and right, respectively. I’m actually kind of embarrassed for you. You’re recycling material that is almost a century old.
* Note: Apparently Toynbee’s perspective on Christianity changed over time. Over three decades later, in 1971, he published, “The Religious Background of the Present Environmental Crisis”, in which he ascribed the environmental crisis to the rise of monotheism, and suggested the remedy might consist of reverting to a pagan pantheism! I wonder what Rabbi Wolpe would think of the later Toynbee.