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.”
Since the 2010 elections, and some would argue since the election of Barack Obama in 2008, Christian social conservatism in the United States has been flexing its muscles. Anti-abortion legislation is at record highs, contraception is a hot-button issue once more, same-sex marriage (not to mention gay soldiers) continues to be used as a political football, and disturbing moments of Christian nativism have been creeping back into our national discourse. There are two popular theories as to why religiously-motivated culture wars have intensified at this moment. The hubris theory, which posits that Christian conservatives have already “won” in changing the American landscape and now are slowly pushing for even more, and the desperation theory, which envisions a demographically doomed conservative Christian rump fighting a rear-guard action against the inevitability of their inconsequentiality. “…contrary to the whims of lazy pundits, the waning of enthusiasm for battling over “social issues” is not due to higher concerns about jobs, the deficit, and the economic future […] Put simply, the Christian Right is getting old.According to the largest and most recent study we have of American religion and politics, by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, almost twice as many people 18 to 29 confess to no faith at all as adhere to evangelical Protestantism.
The New York Times conservative columnist (and blogger) Ross Douthat seems like a fairly smart guy, but he tends to lose his cool whenever his theological buttons (he’s Catholic) get pushed. Remember his “living in Dan Brown’s America” freak-out from May? Now he’s wound-up again over James Cameron’s new CGI opus “Avatar”, and how it’s symptomatic of a deep-rooted commitment to pantheism amongst Hollywood’s elite. “It’s at once the blockbuster to end all blockbusters, and the Gospel According to James. But not the Christian Gospel.
I’m not a fan of Dan Brown’s writing. I think he’s something of a hack, who lucked out by stumbling onto a deep yearning to embrace the divine feminine. The films, thanks partly to director Ron Howard, are far more entertaining, excising much of the tiresome lecturing masquerading as prose in Brown’s novels. One of my only real pleasures in considering the influence of Brown’s career is how he seems to make conservative Catholics (and quite a few conservative Protestants) spend countless hours debunking a popular fiction writer. Enter conservative (Catholic) columnist Ross Douthat, who in his zeal to slam the co-existence of Jesus with Brown’s various New Age/heretical theories does his own sloppy research.