Monday 23 May 2011

Paganism (unlike Christianity) can be personal, individual


Since paganism is the spontaneous religion of humanity, and therefore requires no specific or divine revelation - therefore it requires no Church, no book, nor any institutions.

Paganism can be personal, individual - you can be a real pagan all by yourself.

Many people (probably) are.

And it may be better - much better - to be pagan than nothing.


There are very few pagans visible in modern societies - but who knows how many there be in the privacy of their own minds?

I have, at times, throughout my (pre-Christian) life been a real pagan in this sense - I don't suppose anybody knew about it; nor would they have been interested if I had talked of it.


By real pagan - I mean not neo-pagan: which I have also been (in a loose kind of way) at various points in my life, notably in the period from about 1998-2007.

Real pagans believe in the reality of gods, who are powerful - and must be propitiated. They believe in the reality of the soul, and that (in some way) it survives death. And they have an awe and reverence for the power and beauty of the natural world. (This list is not exhaustive.)


Neo-pagans are modern.

They have emerged since the romantic era (around the start of the 18th century) as an aesthetic movement, later a therapeutic movement - and have become visible since the early 20th century as Wicca, witches of many times, Druids, magic practices, shamanism and other 'native' spiritualities, and a general interest in and practice of past paganism.

But neo-paganism is most visible in the mass media, in the form of books, images, dramas: as a theme.

(This history has been superbly documented by the Bristol University historian Ronald Hutton - whose work I recommend highly.)


But neo-pagans have an aesthetic, an ethic, and an attitude to truth which is modern - often indeed post-modern.

The practices of neo-paganism are typically therefore aesthetic or therapeutic rather than religious.

In a nutshell - neo-paganism is about real paganism; draws from it, but does not live by it.

It is clear from observation that neo-pagans believe in the modern Western way - they believe asif - at most with suspended disbelief; and do not believe in the way everybody believed before about 1700, or the way most of the rest of the world still believes) do not believe in the reality of gods, spirits.

Neo-paganism has therefore integrated easily with modern capitalism, with political correctness, with New Age spirituality.

Indeed, neo-paganism is essentially a part of these: neither an antidote, nor oppositional to the mainstream.

Neo-paganism is an expression of nihilism - maybe emotionally pleasing, maybe able to relieve suffering - but nihilistic nonetheless.


Real paganism could - and indeed very likely will - come back again as being the spontaneous expression of human religiousness.

When it does it will be seen by its contrast with modernity, because real pagans are not PC but instead have a 'tribal' morality of courage, and a loyalty to family and chief.

They will have gods whom they fear to offend.

And pagans believe in the souls and its survival in some form after death - maybe reincarnation, sometimes a similar kind of continued life elsewhere; but often an horrible survival, or one leading inevitably to doom.

Humility and love are distinctively Christian virtues - these paganism lacks.

Existential hope is a distinctively Christian emotion - this paganism lacks.


Paganism can do great harm to the soul - especially be means of untrammelled pride seeking power.

Also, there were many noble pagans whose minds seem to adhered to Natural Law, and to have practiced love and humility, or seemed to have tenuous existential hope even despite having no reason for it.


So, from an ultimate and spiritual perspective, I am sympathetic towards real paganism.

For an atheist or agnostic to become - albeit in the privacy of their own minds - a pagan is probably progress; unless this is driven by pride and desire for power: desire to master the world and other minds.

Paganism is, for moderns, probably qualitative progress for the soul.

Paganism may keep the soul alive in a culture dedicated to its destruction.


(Of course it is not the same for a Christian. Paganism is a partial truth - crudely, Christianity minus revelation. For someone who has been or is a real Christian then to become a real pagan would be not merely be a decline but something monstrous, indeed a kind of impossibility - being in fact a turn away from good to its opposition. To abandon the higher in favour of the lower is not the same as to advance from nihilism to a partial truth. But we live in very dark times of the denial of The Good, of mainstream active opposition to The Good. Partial truth is *almost* infinitely preferable to self-reinforcing nihilism - despite its very real dangers.)



Wm Jas said...

I'm with you on most of this, but I wonder what makes you think that love -- something valued by all people in all cultures everywhere -- is a distinctively Christian virtue which paganism lacks.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Charlton,

How does someone who is sympathetic to Christianity, yet still unconvinced, deal with the kind of descriptions you give here? They seem to me to be correct, but at the same time questionable.

That is: I feel the early Christians "got it" in a way that pagans and Buddhists and atheists (wise thought they may be in their own ways) don't "get it". But my liberal, New Age-y side wants to say that it makes Christianity merely the wisest among peers and not necessarily the revealed Truth.

Devotion to God + personal relationship with God + real humility.... this seems to me to be the right path. This would make Jesus the best teacher. (He beats the Buddha because of the "personal relationship" part). But I'm still very lost.

CS Lewis said that we must either accept Christ as what he said he was or we must call him a madman. Calling him merely a "great moral teacher" and subsequently denying his divinity misses the point entirely. This (in "Mere Christianity" and elsewhere) is airtight reasoning, as far as I can tell. Christ was either dead serious or he was a charlatan. I am inclined to think he was dead serious, but that perhaps he underestimated what true universality means for humans. That is.... he was the greatest "guru" who ever lived. That God did indeed send him personally. But that Trinitarian divinity is a mistake and that God intends many little Christs. We can't all (or none of us can) match Christ. He was the best. But it is not true that he was the *only* path to unity with God. That is... the early Christians were right *and* the deconstructionists (or whatever skeptics) are right.

To summarize, what does one say to the following proposition: Christ *was* correct about the proper purpose and meaning of human life, but he was *still* incorrect about his own unique role.

To put it another way: Is it possible for someone to unite with God as God intended and yet not do so through Christ? And if so, can we say that Christ was correct but that the Christians were (are) wrong?

I don't have an axe to grind here. I ask as someone who is both sympathetic and (apparently incurably) skeptical. No other human seems to me to be as important as Christ and I don't doubt his divinity, and yet I can't manage to shake the feeling that something is fishy — merely historical.

(This is "Daniel" who comments here sometimes... I am having difficulties with the log-in process, and so posting under "Anonymous")

The Crow said...

Anything that needs explaining can not be explained. Not for want of trying, but because it simply can not be explained. Knowing, is one of those unexplainable things. How could one explain what knowing is?
Christian Hope, as you remind us, is exactly that: wishing it could be so.
Always a possibility.
And yet never a result.
Agreeing to agree on something nobody understands in the same way.
Ultimately alone, through a lifetime of hoping not to be.
Never realizing that one never is, while always being so.
An interesting and provocative read, Bruce.
This reader thanks you :)

Bruce Charlton said...


I am using Love for Agape, which is a distinctive Christian concept - indeed both central and elusive.

The idea that *God* is Love is unique to Christians, surely?; and other god/s are not Love - but more usually they are powerful entities to be feared, obeyed and propititated; or else 'the god/s" have few or no 'personal' characteristics but are more like abstract 'forces' or processes.

Or have I missed your point?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Daniel - sorry if I have already asked this, but have you read Pascal's Pensees?

If not, then please do so (perhaps in the commented edition by Peter Kreeft 'Christianity for Modern Pagans').

One suggestion is to think about the limits of your own knowledge, and to think about who you personally might regard as an authority: somebody who knows better than you about these matters. Humility is necessary for this, but also an ability to discern authority in a very confused era.

The point is that your personal understanding is at this point very limited, since you have not even begun on the path; so you cannot expect to be able to work out for yourself the answer to all questions you can imagine.

Some of these questions you are plagued by may themselves be ill-formed questions, and dead-ends - or else be in principle unanswerable, or leading only to paradox or nonsense.

Some of these questions are an indication of the need to learn and understand more and to challenge your basic perspective; rather than questions that could be answered in their present form and using your existing knowledge and perspective.

The greatest triumph of nihilistic modernity against Christianity has been to render perfectly standard historical spontaneous human knowledge (which you indeed shared as a child) - that which was understood by everyone until a few hundred years ago - including the greatest names of human history - to make this become apparently incomprehensible, ridiculous, arbitrary or even wicked.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Crow - one fact is the assymetry of Christian faith and nihilism.

Faith cannot be compelled, it is always due to free will (free=choice, will=the ability to choose).

That which can be compelled is not faith.

And yes - by this account, Christian faith is rare and fragile.

'Luckily' (to put it mildly) to seek is to find, and repentance brings forgiveness - always bearing in mind that seeking and repenting are acts of the soul; not (not necessarily) publicly-observable behaviors.

Wm Jas said...

Pagans being polytheists, none of them taught that "God" (with a big G) "is love" -- but many of them certainly considered love to be a god, and an important one. (See, for example, Phaedrus's speech in Plato's Symposium, in which he says that Love is the oldest and greatest of the gods.)

Some of the pagan Chinese philosophers also taught something very close to Christian agape. I'm thinking particularly of Mozi and his central doctrine of jian-ai (variously translated as "impartial caring" or "universal love").

Of course some specific Christian teachings about love are unique, but the general idea that love is a virtue and even divine is not unique to any one religion.

Bruce Charlton said...

WmJas - are you familiar with the general idea of C.S. Lewis's Four Loves:

The pagan Love seems to be Eros/ romance, Storge/ affection or/ and Philia/ friendship - but not Agape/ charity, surely?

On the other hand, I agree that Agape was not *completely* new, since it would have been utterly incomprehensible if it had been.

Perhaps it is simplest (although undoubtedly over-simplifying if pushed too hard) to regard Agape/ charity as the *primary* Good as being something new with Christianity.

Thursday said...

Paganism can be personal, individual - you can be a real pagan all by yourself.

Has this ever been historically, or prehistorically, true? IIRC, in any premodern society, however small or large, nothing, including religion, would ever be done apart from the group. Even during agricultural times, household gods were for the household. You might have visions or mystical experiences that were personal, but that seems about it.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Thursday - it's true in the sense that there are an indefinite number of paganisms - even as the size of social unit is reduced, and presumably the divisibility could continue down to an individual level (I don't think there is any reason why not); and it is true by personal experience ;=)

Wm Jas said...

You are right that it was Eros, not agape, who was considered by the Greeks to be a god. I still think the Chinese Mohists taught something indistinguishable from Christian charity, though.

The Crow said...

Rather than paste a sizable amount of text, here, I will link to the original.
One fool's view of Jesus:

Bruce Charlton said...

WnJas - I know nothing about Mozi and his central doctrine of jian-ai. Is there a handy web source? *Why* did he make jian di his central doctrine - I mean, with what justification?

@Crow - of course what Jesus did turned-out to be highly effective in the long run (for at least a millennium), and it was in fulfillment of the prophecies.

And of course evaluating the success of any life strategy "has to" include the soul after death, as well as what happens in earthly life.

Thursday said...

1. A lot of less intelligent people are still very much convinced supernaturalists. Spirits and such are very much real to them.

2. One should also remember though that paganism doesn't have any necessary connection with any sort of higher spirituality or ethics of any kind. This has normally been the case among hunter gatherers and other more primative peoples. Haitian voodoo is a good example from contemporary times.

B322 said...

I'm a complete rube when it comes to this stuff. I'm intrigued though.

Paganism can do great harm to the soul - especially be means of untrammelled pride seeking power.

Can you tell me more about this? Pagans just become super powerful and selfish? We are talking about discipline and skill without agape? I just can't picture exactly how someone would act when their soul is harmed in this way.

Wm Jas said...

Bruce, you can read Mozi's teachings on universal love online here:

Mozi's justification for universal love is primarily utilitarian (he was in many ways a utilitarian liberal avant la lettre). Universal love will put an end to disorder and encourage order, put an end to calamities and bring benefit to the world.

So, no, nothing about God being love or anything like that. But he still comes very close to some basic Christian ideas, teaching what amounts to loving one's neighbor as oneself: "When every one regards the houses of others as he regards his own, who would disturb the others' houses? Others are regarded like self."

Bruce Charlton said...

WmJas - Interesting - very 'modern', very unlike Christianity; but much like an early kind of utopian socialism, or utilitarianism: obviously wrong, but evidence of the same yearning.

(Maybe it is an early example of the clever-silly phenomenon!)

On grounds of common sense (not to mention selfish gene ideas) it would take only a single person in the world NOT to embrace universal benevolence and for this trait to be heritable and the whole edifice would collapse.

The idea is based on univeral benevolence being selfishly optimal, but for each individual (at the margin) the optimal selfish arrangement is universal benelovence *except for ME* - so it encourages cheating and exploitation.

Then you get down to human nature. Human nature is wicked - either due to original sin, or our evolutionary history (and if it is not wicked, then why hasn't everybody already adopted universal benevolence).

In sum - this is interesting because of its antiquity. As philosophy it is nonsense, but nonsense of a fairly normal kind nowadays in the line of 1960s hippie 'philosophy'.

Which raises the question of wht kind of society can produce this particular brand of nonsense? Were there any significant resemblences between China at this time and place (at least for the intellectual class), and the West in past decades?

Wm Jas said...

Mozi's plan was to prevent cheating by teaching everyone to fear that ghosts and spirits were watching them at all times and would punish evil and reward virtue. (This is one of the very few non-"modern" aspects of Mohism.) One gets the impression that Mozi himself didn't really believe in ghosts, but that he felt it necessary to lie to the people for the good of society.

I'm afraid my knowledge of Chinese social history in the time of Mozi (who, despite the "modernity" of his teachings, was an almost exact contemporary of Socrates) is pretty sketchy, so I can't say whether there were any significant parallels to the situation in the modern West. It's a very interesting question, though.

Anonymous said...

The problem with Christianity is that in its liberal, Sermon on the Mount version, it is simply insane. Loving evil is simply insane.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Thrasymachus. Well, the liberal SotM thing isn't really Christianity - it is apostasy. And of course you are correct that it is indeed insane.

Christianity is what there was nearly everywhere for the first millenium; but since then the picture is much more complex and overall the progressive decline and corruption of the Christian ideal is fairly obvious - perhaps Holy Russia was the high point.

The author of Beowulf was Christian - was he insane? (Later Anglo Saxon England was one of the most devoutly Christian societies ever - Saints everywhere.)

Was the Byzantine Roman Empire (lasting 800 plus years) insane?

So, *real* Christianity is common-sensical, coherent and tough - but the various apostasies and heresies which nowadays dominate Christendom are insane, incoherent and weak.

ajb said...

Anonymous said: "CS Lewis said that we must either accept Christ as what he said he was or we must call him a madman. Calling him merely a "great moral teacher" and subsequently denying his divinity misses the point entirely. This (in "Mere Christianity" and elsewhere) is airtight reasoning, as far as I can tell. Christ was either dead serious or he was a charlatan."

Having only read a little on this, I don't find it airtight. It's easy to postulate errors in the written account of what Jesus said or did.

See here:

It might be a combination of several of the options in the "pentalemma" (Lord, Liar, Lunatic, Legend, or Guru): he might have been partially deluded, while also having accounts of what he said misrepresenting what he actually said, while also being very holy.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ajb - To evaluate Lewis's argument requires a bit more context.

It was not designed to prove the divinity of Christ, but mainly to refute those who denied the divinity of Christ while regarding Jesus as the supreme moral teacher of all time - those who were trying to be 'Christians' but with Christ as a human.