Editorial: Douthat’s post-Christian future, a response

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Yesterday, columnist Ross Douthat wrote The Return of Paganism for the New York Times. As the essay’s subtitle commented, “Maybe there actually is a genuinely post-Christian future for America.”

As I read the article, what I find myself focused on is the incredible disservice this essay did to the – writ large – Pagan community around the world. Mr. Douthat reduces “Paganism” to a series of disconnected beliefs in spiritual and supernatural forces that focuses skeptically on moral standards, although he correctly points out that Paganism generally centers on immanent reality as a manifestation of the spiritual.

At the same time, Mr. Douthat becomes trapped by the philosophical perspectives of pantheism of Nietzsche, Spinoza, and even Walt Whitman. He plays with the cultic aspects of a Pagan world, and finally does his greatest disservice by engaging in an ever-present, and frankly ignorant, need to link together “New Agers and neo-pagans [sic].” He exposes his ignorance of the Pagan and polytheist community by noting that he has “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 ultimately laments that “there may soon be more witches in the United States than members of the United Church of Christ.”

The essay is ripe with disdain. He suggests that Paganism is some civic cult with supernatural experimentation driven by secret societies of literati weaving post-Christian intellectualism into society.

Douthat has it backwards. I was disappointed in the New York Times for furthering what is Mr. Douthat’s obvious and patriarchal lamentation in his essay: the demise of religious moral control. Douthat appears to be profoundly disturbed at the loss of central moral authority, and, apparently unable to cope with what organized religion has done to itself, seeks a scapegoat in Paganism.

Organized religions have failed their faithful and the broader society in two ways. First, these religions promulgated a social morality that, codified by misogyny, and shackled their followers with fear. They focused on creating social conditions that stratified authority and concentrated it in the hands of a few men. Religions of this kind developed not only a legal architecture to affirm their control but also powerful mechanisms – including military and security forces – to ensure compliance of their faithful.

Second, they tolerated centuries of hypocrisy allowing predation upon those with the least power in society. The outcome was increasingly the control and subordination of individuals instead of their empowerment, while those with the highest authority centered their leadership on preserving their collective abuses. They absorbed into their ranks powerful and foul voices who manufactured social machines that expanded corruption while eliminating oversight. Mr. Douthat correctly points out that the issue is most obvious in the hijacking of American Christianity by prosperity gospel advocates and the obscene merging of Christ’s message with nationalism.

La Danse (H. Matisse, 1909. oil on canvas) [public domain]

What the essay fails to do, however – despite its potential to do so – was explore a twofold issue. First, Mr Douthat overlooks the continuing effect of social awakening that begin with the Enlightenment and continues to the Information Age. All over the world, communities are recognizing that acts of proselytizing are, in fact, cultural warfare. Moreover, there is no surprise that the “righteous” and the “moral” in power routinely ignore the oppression of individuals from invented social and economic systems; that ignorance is simply the kyriarchy at work.

Most seriously, the continued toleration of sexual abuse and misogyny exposes all the other moral failings of organized religions – including the Abrahamic faiths’ obsession with sexual restrictions and alienation from the natural world. This process continues today. There is no real abatement from continued sexual demonization. Individuals working to experience their authentic selves are deluged by moral pronouncements serving only to layer guilt and self-hatred. Pagans are not working to the demise of organized religion; organized religion is already doing an excellent job of dismantling itself.

Turning to the other point regarding the essay’s disservice to Paganism, I frankly expected better from the New York Times. Yes, this is an opinion piece. Still, there was opportunity from editorial oversight to eliminate the sensationalism that drips in the essay as well as the overt aggression toward another religious perspective. Discussions of the hexing of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, or Jeff Bezos being hailed as a post-modern “pontifex,” distract from Douthat’s actual point and manipulate readers in order to secure agreement with Douthat’s views.

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. 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.

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”.

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.

Embedded in the arrogance of Douthat’s worldview is an expectation that he – and perhaps others in the organized religions – are entitled to explanations from Pagans. I regret to say I suspect he will be met with disappointment. Pagans are not responsible for explaining our beliefs to him, nor must we submit evidence that they are better than those of organized faiths.

In presenting this argument, Mr. Douthat avoids the obvious remedy to his dilemma: organized religions should focus on living up to their origins, whether those be the promise of salvation, submission, or, even more simply, love. Paganism is not the boogeyman here; the real monster is hypocrisy.