Rod Dreher, Strange Bedfellows, and Modern Paganism

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  March 5, 2013 — 32 Comments

I rarely agree with American Conservative opinion columnist Rod Dreher, not because he’s a “crunchy conservative,” but because his views on religion are so skewed by his evangelical-turned-Catholic-turned-Orthodox Christian worldview that he often comes off (perhaps inadvertently) as the worst sort of smug, triumphalist, man-of-God. The kind of guy who blames Haiti’s condition on Vodou, right after it’s rocked by a massive natural disaster and humanitarian crisis.

Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher

“The kind of religion one practices makes a huge difference in how the community lives — for better or for worse. I suppose it’s at least arguable that the Haitians would be better off at the Church of Christopher Hitchens rather than as followers of voodoo.

The kind of guy who calls Santeria savage demon worship (just like Vodou), who spreads unproven smears against liberal Catholics involving the taint of Vodou and polytheism, who joined the hilarious-in-retrospect freak-out over Hollywood “pantheism” (ie “Avatar” made a lot of money), and who never misses an opportunity to be “funny” regarding the beliefs of modern Pagans (it’s humorless and like Dungeons & Dragons). However, adversity makes for strange bedfellows and all that, there is stuff going down, a Pope has resigned, and the secular “nones” are rising!

Cue the grudging “I guess Pagans aren’t SO bad” re-evaluation: 

“Personally, I find paganism far more attractive than atheism, because pagans, however mistaken their understanding (from a Christian point of view) nevertheless share with Christians a recognition that there is Something There beyond ourselves, and the material world. I can have (have had) a fruitful, engaging discussion with my friend and commenter Franklin Evans, a pagan, in a way that I just can’t with friends who have no spiritual or religious beliefs, or a sense of the numinous.

My guess, and it’s only that, is that some pagans will fall away from the practice of their faith for the same reason many Christians are: because it doesn’t make sense in our scientistic, materialistic, consumerist world. At the same time, I think that paganism stands to gain overall from the unchristening of the West. If you look at the Asatru site, this neopagan religion speaks to longings that are deep within all of us, and cannot be suppressed forever.”

Yes, in the beauty contest of belief we’re pretty homely, but at lest we’re better looking than the atheists. So, go team Paganism? Yay? Here’s the thing though, while it’s inevitable that some Pagans will leave our umbrella for other pastures in our post-Christian future, modern Paganism as a movement has no trouble embracing both “hard” polytheists and, well, Pagan humanists. Most of the faiths under our umbrella have been fine with all sorts of conceptions of the divine, because our movement isn’t centered on a single correct belief. We, and I use that “we” very loosely here, are not all that threatened by atheism, humanism, or other post-theism “isms.” Our conditions of solidarity are practical, political (in the sense of fighting for our shared rights), social, and festival-based. So it’s amazingly common to see Pagan ecumenical gatherings where polytheists and atheists participate in the same rituals. When transformative (sacred/secular) phenomena like Burning Man appear, we are generally of the “what took you guys so long” school than the “does this threaten us” school.

The “spiritual but not religious” people are, for the most part, just fine with Pagans, are are the nones. As I’ve said before, I think their growth provides fertile ground for Pagan faiths, something Dreher also agrees with. Where he truly goes wrong in his analysis is in holding any one group up as representative of the movement as a whole. Paganism, polytheism, indigenous religions, syncretic diasporic faiths, Dharmic religions, these systems endured the rise of monotheism (and sometimes even thrived) because these faiths are, for the most part, decentralized, free of a binding “Pope” hierarchy, and able to change in ways Catholicism and other top-down systems can’t. Yes, monotheism can, for a time, be brutally effective in spreading and changing culture, but that success has to tie itself to the same colonial/militaristic power structure that early Christians condemned. When that power is slowly removed, a million green religious shoots appear in the paved-over theological parking lot.

Even if the Pagan umbrella crumbles some day and our faiths go our separate ways, it will not ultimately impede the growth of this religious phenomena. Some day we may be so popular that “umbrellas” may no longer be necessary, but the religious shift we are harbingers of will endure so long as we are not actively suppressed. Dreher sees the future as a battle between “something” (theism) and “nothing” (atheism)  and thus includes Pagans in team “theism”; but modern Pagans (and our allies) know that this is a false separation. There is no dualistic battle between “something” and “nothing” and our faiths aren’t playing that game. We don’t “fight” conceptions of the liminal that we don’t agree with, we either let them be (so long as they let us be) or find ways to simply include them. Modern Paganism, and similar religious movements are far more complex, and rich, than I think Dreher can imagine, and we are far more ready for the future than perhaps even we are ready to acknowledge.

As for Dreher, I’m sure he’d make a lovely neighbor, as Chas Clifton attests, and I hope he continues to travel the road he seems to have embarked on. Maybe he’ll find that all the demons he sees are placed there by a worldview invested in seeing our faiths as demonic, that the future to fear is not the growth of atheists, or Pagans, but what the dominant monotheisms might do to retain their power and influence.

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • Hecate_Demetersdatter

    “a million green religious shoots appear in the paved-over theological parking lot.”

    Damn. I wish that I’d written that.

    • I liked that one too. I couldn’t help thinking of Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi though. ; )

  • Janet

    “My guess, and it’s only that, is that some pagans will fall away from the practice of their faith for the same reason many Christians are: because it doesn’t make sense in our scientistic, materialistic, consumerist world.”
    Only someone with no concept of various Pagan religions would make such a statement. How sadly uninformed he is to be getting any kind of press with views like this.

    • In my view, Pagan perspectives not only “make sense in our scientistic, materialistic, consumerist world,” they help to make sense *of* said world.

    • Lori F – MN

      So you are saying no Pagan would leave for Atheism? Maybe less likely but still possible.

      • Jay

        No, I would wager it has more to do with the fact that Paganism emerged to *counter* the “scientistic, materialistic, consumerist world”. We’re not carrying thousands of years of baggage that, at least doctrinally, is not supposed to change or evolve.

  • Well said!

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    The Humanistic/Naturalistic Pagans site could have been done by Unitarian Universalists.

    • Sure. There are plenty of UUs in that number. But not all of us by a long shot.

      • Baruch Dreamstalker

        There’s very little that elaborate that would sweep up all of us.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    I just ran through your links for Rod Dreher. His whole third-way-but-still-branded-conservative rap is about getting back to roots. “Crunchy conservatives aren’t that far from Paganism already.
    Of the things Dreher laughs at, all but one involve Paganisms of color. But he can respect a generic, ie colorless, paganism, and reprint an Asatru website in his blog that emphasizes its pan-European roots. Hmmm….

    • The website that Dreher links to isn’t so much into “pan-European roots” as it is into White nationalism. My point being that White nationalism is a very modern phenomenon, and it has nothing to do with any Pagan or Heathen “roots” in Europe or anywhere else.

  • Deborah Bender

    Very well put, all the way through.

    Kudos on having the patience to read this guy regularly. When Christian conservatives are feeling particularly threatened by secularism, they warm up a little to religions that they normally regard as adversaries.

    One nitpick on style. Phenomena has not yet gone the way of data/datum and become a singular collective noun for most writers. Phenomenon is the singular of phenomena. (Next to last paragraph).

  • Charles Cosimano

    Dreher is cool. He and I have been playing off each other for years now and while he comes across as nutty as a jaybird at times, he really does try to honestly see past his particular world view. But he is honest about where he is coming from and does not hide it. And that is always an admirable quality.

  • Daniel SnowKestral

    And the thing that asserts itself with his Christian line of thinking is that there will always be cracks in the theological pavement. No matter how many times one renews the paving….filling in the cracks with tar, Nature will always reclaim and break through that which has been paved over…shoots, roots, leaves, dandelions and all else will emerge because the theological pavement ignores the deeper truths of the heartbeat of Life, Itself. Over time, the roots of trees can break through boulders, and hold mountains together. Mere, surfaceficial pavement only holds, topically, for the proverbial blink of an eye in the grand scheme of Creation

  • indorri

    I found myself a bit miffed while reading this because of Dreher’s restatement of the “atheists got nothing” trope. I don’t get why awe at the material world isn’t considered a valid way of expressing what Dreher considers to be religious instincts: it’s not like only atheists have it, but atheists do have it. It’s frigging common ground. It’s not like there aren’t deader than Methuselah “traditional” religions in terms of quickening the spirit. I am glad you rejected his dichotomy, Jason.

    • Thriceraven

      My thoughts exactly. As a scientist, I work with a lot of atheists, and a great many of them have a sense of awe, wonder and thankfulness for the makeup of the world at a very deep level. I call those experiences religious, and they don’t, but the experiences are the same, as far as I can tell.

  • LaurelhurstLiberal

    There’s a part of Rod Dreher that would make a good Druid or Heathen, all about sense of place, food, family, and tradition, and then there’s the cheerleader for Team Judeochristianity.

  • Kenneth

    You know traditionalist Christians are seeing some damn dark storm clouds on the horizon when they embrace us as allies or even tolerable. It’s like Archie Bunker warming up to George Jefferson and letting him sit in his favorite chair….to keep it safe from the queer he was afraid would sit there! Not exactly a full-on celebration of diversity, but maybe Dreher points toward a new model for Christian-Pagan relations: A mutual declaration that “we ain’t got nothin against them people, so long as they stay on their side of the tracks and don’t bring none of them atheists around!.”

    • Nick Ritter

      I suspect that, at least in part, it has to do with Pagans being a more familiar enemy. In the Christian narrative, they’ve beaten us once before, and destroyed our religions; they’ve never destroyed atheism, though, and they don’t know that they can. As such, we are the known quantity (they think), while atheism is the unknown quantity.

    • Franklin Evans

      I agree with Nick, though I’d put it this way instead: We are the go-to choice of scapegoat for modern Christians, and that is not something that’s going to change any time soon.
      I consider it about educating and bringing ignorance under the Harsh Light of Reality[tm]. Given my stated bias — Rod is a friend of mine — I would answer a resounding “no” to your maybe about him. I, for one, already live on their side of the tracks, and I ain’t going away. 😀

      • Kenneth

        I will say that I remember his old Crunch Con blog and some offshoot of that fondly. It was a very good place to do a lot of thinking and reasoned (mostly) argument about a lot of issues.

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    “Even if the Pagan umbrella crumbles some day and our faiths go
    our separate ways, it will not ultimately impede the growth of this
    religious phenomena. Some day we may be so popular that “umbrellas” may
    no longer be necessary,”

    I look forward to this day. I think such a thing can be done with respect and tolerance, so don’t see it as a bad thing. Umbrellas are only useful when the weather in unfavourable, after all.

    It would also work in the various ‘Pagan’ religions favour to have a certain level of separation from each other when involved in interfaith.

  • Jason: “but that success has to tie itself to the same colonial/militaristic power structure that early Christians condemned.

    Early Christians never condemned the “colonial/militaristic power structure”. That is pure fantasy. Early Christians were very free with their condemnations, but these were of a religious character and had nothing to do with political or military power structures (with the possible exception of some very early Christians who were essentially Jewish nationalists belonging to the Zealots or similar violent extremist groups). At least one prominent early Christian, Irenaeus, actually praised the power, efficiency, peace and prosperity of Pagan Rome, because it provided a perfect setting for the spreading of their “gospel” from one end of the known world to the other.

  • Franklin Evans

    I am the “Franklin Evans” Rod mentions. I’m here to offer my personal perspective on Rod: To start, I would echo Charles Cosimano’s lauding his honesty. The complementary part is that he brings it to discussions with an open mind — open in the sense that he does listen, even if he expects that his biases or prejudices are not going to be dissuaded.
    One should remember — even if one rejects it as a mitigating circumstance — that Rod and TAC in general is preaching to an odd choir. It draws social liberals such as myself because it attempts a self-aware balance missing from most other places, liberal as well as conservative… I would, in fact, favorably compare Wild Hunt in this context. It draws conservatives who openly question their own tribe but in doing so become marginalized. And most importantly from my POV is that the group of blog authors there interact in constructively critical ways. One can see parallel posts and open dissension.
    My personal opinion of Rod is that he is a seeker, quite in line with that aspect of our own chosen paths. That his seeking has lead him down a narrower path of dogma is a worthy aspect of caution and perhaps criticism from us, but it does offer support for the fact — from my personal experience of him — that he and we have a common ground.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      Forgive me, Franklin, if I appear to be using you as an available substitute for Rod, but you are, well, available.
      Every so often, about once a decade, we see either an attempt to put together a political constituency that mixes social liberalism with economic conservatism — either that or a heartfelt cry that no such thing exists. Is Dreher’s supposed cohort that kind of animal?

      • Rod is the furthest thing from a social liberal.

        • And this turns out to be the case for a surprising (or possibly not so surprising) number of so-called “Libertarians”.

      • Franklin Evans

        Baruch, I’m grateful for your courtesy. I can offer my observations, certainly.
        Rod’s “Crunchy Con” book attracted him to Beliefnet at a time when they were starving for topical content (that would attract more advertising, I cynically add). My view of that concept (I’ve not read the book, sadly) is that it fits well within a quasi-libertarian worldview which at least has room for a social liberal/economic conservative hybrid mindset. I should disclose that I label myself that way explicitly.
        Rod is no liberal, not even close. What he does epitomize is the value of open discussion, the value of respectful criticism, and a shared goal of improving our condition. He and his cohort are, I submit, a good example of “loyal opposition”, a conscious commitment to dogma (I think “principles” is a better term) that declines (refuses, IMO) to surrender to its implied tyranny.
        A personal comparison point: I see our gods and goddesses having as feet of clay. I see that as a very good thing rather than a detriment. Rod’s God cannot ever fit that analogy, but his God’s representatives stand in for it, and he demands that they earn and keep his respect. He left the Roman Catholic Church for Eastern Orthodox (he’s currently a ROCOR member) over the sex-abuse scandal much more for the terrible way it was handled than for that it happened.
        I don’t believe that such a political constituency is actually possible, at least not in the one- …excuse me two-party system we currently have. Should Rod (or anyone) ever posit such a thing, I’d be very critical of it.

      • Baruch Dreamstalker

        Thank you both. Rod, I’ve always thought that a soclib/ecocon realignment would accompany a fracture of the GOP that would leave the soccons to fend for themselves. Which is maybe why it doesn’t happen?

  • I wish more people would realize that material and materialism are two different ideas. I can be completely grounded and celebratory of the material without being materialistic. I can even be “scientistic” and not be materialistic. I can also be a consumer without thinking consumerism is the endpoint in itself.