Paganism Hasn’t Returned (Yet)

Paganism Hasn’t Returned (Yet)

Last month, an opinion piece appeared in the New York Times entitled, “The Return of Paganism”.  The author, Ross Douthat, is a regular conservative voice at the NYT.  He is also a Catholic and the author of Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (2012).

Douthat’s article caught many Pagans’ attention, because it’s unusual to see Paganism written about in the mainstream media.  It’s important to understand, though, that when Douthat writes about “paganism”, he isn’t talking about the contemporary Pagan community; he is describing a paradigm, which includes some of contemporary Paganism, but is actually much broader.

For the sake of clarity, in what follows, I will follow Douthat in using the lower-case “paganism” to designate his broader sense of the term and I will use the phrase “contemporary Paganism” (upper-case “P”) to refer to that constellation of communities which is represented at self-designated Pagan gatherings today.

What readers need to understand about Douthat is that Christianity is his starting point, specifically Catholicism, and so he feels the need to explain everything else as a deviation from Catholicism.  In this view, everything from maintain Protestantism to contemporary Paganism to secular liberal politics is a Catholic “heresy”.  At least, that’s what he used to think.  Douthat’s recent article is his attempt to acknowledge that sometimes heresies can evolve into their own thing, into something “genuinely post-Christian”.

I know a lot of Pagans will have a knee-jerk reaction to the Douthat’s characterization of contemporary Paganism as a Christian heresy or “post-Christian”.  But to a certain extent, I agree with Douthat that contemporary Paganism is a reaction to Christianity … just like Christianity was a reaction to ancient paganisms.  Neither emerged in a cultural vacuum.  (For more on that, see my essay, “Waiter! There’s Some Christianity in My Pagan Soup!”)

But contemporary Paganism isn’t really what Douthat is concerned with (though he does touch on it later in his article).  It’s the lower-case “paganism” that he is interested in.  By “paganism”, Douthat means a religious conception

“that divinity is fundamentally inside the world rather than outside it, that God or the gods or Being are ultimately part of nature rather than an external creator, and that meaning and morality and metaphysical experience are to be sought in a fuller communion with the immanent world rather than a leap toward the transcendent.”

Douthat goes on to distinguish paganism from his conception of atheism:

“This paganism is not materialist or atheistic; it allows for belief in spiritual and supernatural realities. It even accepts the possibility of an afterlife. But it is deliberately agnostic about final things, what awaits beyond the shores of this world, and it is skeptical of the idea that there exists some ascetic, world-denying moral standard to which we should aspire. Instead, it sees the purpose of religion and spirituality as more therapeutic, a means of seeking harmony with nature and happiness in the everyday — while unlike atheism, it insists that this everyday is divinely endowed and shaped, meaningful and not random, a place where we can truly hope to be at home.”

While I take issue with Douthat characterization of atheism1, I actually like his description of paganism as the belief that the natural world is our home and the site of divine communion.  (This description does not include all contemporary Pagans, nor is it mean to. It may be helpful to think of Douthat’s small-p paganism and the contemporary Pagan community as partially overlapping circles. More and more, it’s this small-p paganism that I identify with, more than the capital-P Pagan community.)

Douthat acknowledges that this paganism isn’t something new. It’s related to those ancient paganisms which were supplanted by Christianity in the West, and it was only “half-buried” during Christianity’s hegemony.  For example, he cites the (confusingly named) Transcendentalists, Emerson and Whitman, as examples of a pagan semi-resurgence.  (I would also list representatives of Romanticism, the Celtic Revival, and the Woodcraft movement.)  In fact, throughout history, as the dominant religious voices in the West have directed our gaze skyward, there have always been dissenting voices drawing our attention back to earth.

In a recent opinion piece at The Wild Hunt, Manny Tejeda-Moreno excoriated Douthat’s (mis-)use of the term “pagan”.  But I was actually surprised by Douthat’s (comparative) restraint.  He seems much less disturbed by the growth of paganism than he was when he wrote Bad Religion seven years ago.  Rather than bemoaning the decline of tradition values and blaming this on paganism (instead of Christianity’s own shortcomings), Douthat seems … well, curious.2  What would it take, he wonders, for paganism to really become a challenge to the Christian hegemony?  This is the question he explores in his article, and as it turns out, it’s a question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately.

I know, you’re probably thinking, “Christianity is already on the decline.” Certainly, church attendance is on the decline, as is belief in Christian dogma.  But, we have to go back to Douthat’s definition of paganism in order to understand what he really means by “Christianity”.  If paganism is a conception of divinity as “inside” the world and part of nature, then Christianity, as Douthat understands it, is a conception of divinity as “outside” the world and “external” to nature.  And if the pagan finds meaning, morality, and “metaphysical experience” in communion with the immanent world, then the Christian finds these things in what Douthat calls a “leap toward the transcendent.” While belief in Christian dogma is declining, the urge toward that transcendent leap which Douthat calls “Chirstianity” is as strong as ever.

Douthat acknowledges, “In popular religious practice there isn’t always a clean line between this ‘immanent’ religion and the transcendent alternative offered by Christianity and Judaism.”  Admittedly, that’s a massive understatement.  In fact, you don’t have to look very hard to find Christians whose understanding of Jesus is far more immanent than many Pagans’ conception of deity. I think would be less confusing if, instead of talking about “Christianity” and “paganism”, Douthat would use the terms “transcendence” and “immanence” to describe these competing paradigms.3

Douthat sees the pagan (read immanence) paradigm manifest both in philosophical pantheism and in “officially secular” progressive politics (which he calls “civil religion”).  But he thinks that this, by itself, is insufficient to challenge the dominance of the Christian (read transcendence) paradigm.  The reason?  The new religious impulse lacks a “clear cultic aspect, a set of popular devotions, a practice of ritual and prayer of the kind that the paganism of antiquity offered in abundance.”  The lack of a cultic aspect, writes Douthat, highlights the weakness of a “purely intellectualized pantheism”4:

“It invites its adherents to commune with a universe that offers suffering and misery in abundance, which means that it has a strong appeal to the privileged but a much weaker appeal to people who need not only sense of wonder from their spiritual lives but also, well, help.”

Douthat knows that “there are forms of modern paganism that do promise this help, that do offer ritual and observance, augury and prayer, that do promise that in some form gods or spirits really might exist and might offer succor or help if appropriately invoked”, among which forms he includes New Age practices and “explicit neo-paganism, Wiccan and otherwise”.  And he acknowledges that our numbers are growing, but he does not seem to think we are large enough yet to represent a challenge to Christianity.

Nevertheless, Douthat sees in these manifestations of paganism (including “explicit neo-paganism”) the potential to bring together “popular supernaturalism” with “highbrow pantheism and civil-religiosity” in the same way that ancient paganisms did.  And this, he says, is what would need to happen for paganism to really “return”:

“To get a fully revived paganism in contemporary America, that’s what would have to happen again — the philosophers of pantheism and civil religion would need to build a religious bridge to the New Agers and neo-pagans, and together they would need to create a more fully realized cult of the immanent divine, an actual way to worship, not just to appreciate, the pantheistic order they discern.”

And that is why I am writing about Douthat’s article here at … because I think that is exactly what we are trying to do here and in other online fora (like  We’re trying to bridge a philosophical naturalism and political progressivism, on the one hand, with an atavistic religious sensibility and practices which are an organic response to the natural world, on the other.5

I say “trying”, because I think we have a way to go still.  To my mind, we haven’t yet created a “fully realized cult of the immanent divine, an actual way to worship, not just to appreciate, the pantheistic order [we] discern.”  “Worship” is the key word here.  I have written here before about naturalistic worship, where I suggested that some of the things we might do include learning to speak to living nature as a “Thou”, rather about nature as an “it”, and also embracing traditional forms of devotional practice, like making offerings and building (eco-)shrines.  (It may be helpful for some of you more left-brained types to think of these as religious “technologies”. For other examples, check out my series, “The Naturalistic Pagan Toolbox”.)

But I think we may need to go even further.  I think Douthat really hit on something when he observed that religions which invite adherents to wonder at the universe appeal to the privileged, but that most people need something more: they need help.  (I’ve written about the atheism and privilege here.)  And unless our religion offers people some kind of help–even if it comes from within rather than without–we will never be a real challenge to the Christian hegemony.

This is sentiment is, I suspect, what inspired Chas Clifton recently to characterize “atheist” and “humanistic” Pagans (his quotation marks) as “merely Unitarians who like to be in the woods.”6  As an atheist/humanistic pagan and as a Unitarian, I am doubly offended by Clifton’s inaccurate conflation of these two groups, as well as by his dismissive use of the word “merely”.  Nevertheless, there is some truth behind Clifton’s characterization.4

It’s no coincidence that the real energy in contemporary Paganism today is not to be found in naturalistic circles, but among the devotional polytheists.  Here’s the dilemma, as I described it recently in my essay, “Paganism Needs a Prophet (but it ain’t me)”7,

“It seems to me that we’re caught in a Catch-22. When we reject the literalism of theistic religion, we lose the enthusiasm (from enthousiasmos, meaning the indwelling of a god), and without the enthusiasm, we just can’t sustain a religious movement. This has been true of UUs, who have been limping along since the time of the Transcendentalists, and it seems true of naturalistic Pagans today as well. We love to talk about religion, but the actual doing of it makes us uncomfortable, and so we don’t. (No, I don’t count having a potluck on the solstice as religion, nor do I count an exegetical sermon at a UU church on the meaning of the equinox, nor do I count anything we do on the internet.)”

Ross Douthat is a Catholic and one who still fears the immanent.  But he and I agree on one thing: the potential of paganism. To Douthat, paganism represents a challenge to a paradigm which has dominated the West since the ascendance of Christianity (and especially since the Scientific Revolution), a paradigm which seeks to transcend the natural world–either through asceticism/renunciation (in the case of Christianity) or through control/domination (in the case of science)–a paradigm which, I believe, has recently brought Western civilization to the brink of collapse.

In the face of global climate change, the failure of capitalism, and the rise of fascism, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that paganism has the potential to save the world. But before contemporary Pagans take this as an excuse to inflate our sense of self-importance, we need to remember that we’re talking about small-p paganism here. While there is some overlap between Douthat’s (small-p) paganism and contemporary (capital-P) Paganism–just as there is some overlap with some forms of Christianity–the two are not the same. Contemporary capital-P Paganism is really only a challenge to Christianity to the extent it is an expression of the small-p pagan impulse toward immanence–and that’s often not the case.8

That’s true of humanistic/naturalistic forms of contemporary Paganism as well.  Unfortunately, humanistic/naturalistic Pagans often place too great an emphasis on rationality–which is its own form of transcendence/control–and in this way make a similar mistake as ascetic forms of Christianity which also deny the fullness of human being. The naturalistic Pagan movement will not realize its potential unless we figure out how to speak to the whole human being, not just the intellectual human being.

I agree with founder of the Dark Mountain Project Paul Kingsnorth’s assessment that

“we are not primarily rational, logical, or ‘scientific’ beings. Our human relationship to the rest of nature is not akin to the analysis of bacteria in a petri dish; it is more like the complex, love-hate relationship we might have with lovers or parents or siblings. It is who we are, unspoken and felt and frustrating and inspiring and vital and impossible to peer-review. You can reach part of it with the analytical mind, but the rest will remain buried in the ancient woodland floor of human evolution and in the depths of our old ape brains, which see in pictures and think in stories.”

Real paganism, I think, is not an act of control; it is an act of rewilding. And too much of contemporary Paganism (both in its naturalistic and its supernaturalistic forms) looks to me like an effort to control.  Paganism should resemble more the woodland floor than a petri dish.  And until it does, then the return of paganism will be delayed.


1 Atheism simply means a disbelief in deities. One can be spiritual and atheistic. See my essay “‘Atheist Pagan’ Does Not Equal ‘Secular Pagan’”.

2 See mdyer’s comment to Tejeda-Moreno’s response:

“I actually read Ross Douthat’s editorial as almost a white flag of surrender. He’s a conservative Catholic and will never understand panganry in any of its forms. What he most likely does understand and laments is the institutional collapse of his church. It must be profoundly traumatic for a true believer to watch the slow motion train wreck that the Catholic Church has become. Who knows maybe he’s becoming poly (theist) curious?”

3 In fact, the association of Christianity with the transcendentalist paradigm and paganism with the immanentist paradigm is historically inaccurate. Orthodox Christianity actually rejected the more transcendental Christologies represented by gnosticism and docetism and labeled them heresies. Meanwhile, the transcendentalist influences on Christianity actually originated with the “pagan” (i.e., non-Christian) Neo-Platonic philosophers.

4 I’ve written frequently about this gaping hole in liberal religion. I agree with Andrew Brown, author of “Paganism is alive and well – but you won’t find it at a Goddess Temple”, when he wrote, “What successful [religions] have is not demanding doctrine but demanding practices, rituals and observances which saturate everyday life.” For more on this, check out my articles “Rational Ritual for Religious Naturalists” and my 3part series on Unitarianism and religious experience entitled, “One Needful Thing”.

5 What I’m describing as an”atavistic religious sensibility and practices which are an organic response to the natural world” is what Michael York calls “paganism” in his book, Pagan Theology. “Worship at this nonreflective and almost spontaneous stage of human growth, stripped of its theological overlay or baggage and expressive of the root level of religion,” writes York, “is what I am identifying as pagan.” It’s what John Becket has called “organic religion”. Sometimes called the “pagan temptation”, it seems to surge up spontaneously and unpredictably among peoples of diverse beliefs, including Christians on occasion.

6 In private correspondence to me, Clifton called atheist/humanistic Paganism an “oxymoron”. (He then unwittingly directed me to use Google to find examples of these “people who self-describe as atheist Pagans”.) It is disappointing to find such an uneducated opinion being expressed by such a prominent Pagan Studies scholar. I invite Clifton (and anyone else who shares his opinion) to check out “The Forgotten History of Atheist Paganism”, as well as the book, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans.

7 Perhaps not coincidentally, Douthat also wonders whether “a prophet of a new harmonized paganism is waiting in the wings”.

8 As I wrote in “Escaping the Otherworld: The Reenchantment of Paganism”, too often contemporary Paganism takes a disenchanted form which

“does not empower us to change the world–it perpetuates the status quo.  Our Paganism becomes a placebo, yet another form of escapism, a negative enchantment which fascinates us and distracts us from the other-world-that-is-this-one.  As has been observed by Thorn Mooney, our Paganism can become just another way of avoiding our problems, of making ourselves feel special, of alleviating boredom,or  even of justifying leaving mental illness untreated.”

John Halstead

John Halstead is a native of the southern Laurentian bioregion and lives in Northwest Indiana, near Chicago. He is one of the founders of 350 Indiana-Calumet, which works to organize resistance to the fossil fuel industry in the Region. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment”. He strives to live up to the challenge posed by the statement through his writing and activism. John has written for numerous online platforms, including Patheos, Huffington Post,, HumanisticPaganism.comGods & Radicals, and A Beautiful Resistance. He is Editor-at-Large of John also edited the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans. He is also a Shaper of the Earthseed community which can be found at


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