Born again pagans


Ave Pan by the amazing J Allen St John. Via.

In the spirit of basic human generosity I try not to be too anti-Christian here, especially when so many churchgoers these days feel themselves rather beleaguered; after centuries persecuting much of the world, the world has finally pushed them back and it hurts the poor things. Much as I’d love to refer to Christianity as a Patriarchal Death Cult that seems unfair to those of its adherents who aren’t hate-mongering bigots, those who put agape before “Thou shalt not…”. But goddamn if those self-appointed leaders don’t make generosity difficult at times. Men (and they’re always men) such as poisonous geriatric Pat Robertson whose recent blather has included this gem:

Any country that openly embraces homosexuality throughout the history of mankind has gone down into ruin. That’s history. That’s the historical record. Whatever nation embraces this so-called lifestyle, it ends up in the garbage heap of history.

Given the onward march of gay rights versus the mortal diminishing of ageing gasbags like the recently deceased Jerry Falwell, the only thing the garbage heap of history awaits is Robertson himself. One might even propose in a spirit of distinct un-generosity that the reason Robertson’s god hasn’t already called him home is because heaven’s inhabitants want to have a few more years of peace before they have to listen to his drivel for the rest of eternity.

And speaking of drivel, the porcine Newt Gingrich dropped this bon mot earlier in the month while speaking to a crowd of evangelicals:

“I think this is one of the most critical moments in American history,” Gingrich said. “We are living in a period where we are surrounded by paganism.”

Setting aside the obvious point that America is actually surrounded by large tracts of water and a nation called Canada, Gingrich (or Lissotriton vulgaris as we’d call him if he really was a newt) was proposing a specious equivalence between what he would perceive as social iniquities and, er…Satanism or something. Whether he actually believes any of this nonsense is moot; he’s telling an audience of believers who may one day be asked to vote for him what they want to hear. Nonetheless, he complains about paganism as though it’s somehow a bad thing. Maybe he’d like to come to our cheerfully pagan isles and argue the point with the increasing number of genuine witches, warlocks and sundry earth-worshippers. A Guardian feature this week entitled Everyone’s a pagan now reported that:

There are said to be a quarter of a million practising pagans in this country, double the number of a decade ago. That would make them more numerous than Buddhists (of which there are 144,500, according to the 2001 census) and almost as numerous as Jews (259,000).

It’s no surprise that this comes at a time when church attendance, which has been declining for years in the UK, continues to plummet:

According to Religious Trends, a comprehensive statistical analysis of religious practice in Britain, published by Christian Research, even Hindus will come close to outnumbering churchgoers within a generation. The forecast to 2050 shows churchgoing in Britain declining to 899,000 while the active Hindu population, now at nearly 400,000, will have more than doubled to 855,000. By 2050 there will be 2,660,000 active Muslims in Britain – nearly three times the number of Sunday churchgoers. (More.)

Before Pat Robertson starts looking for our place on the garbage heap of history it ought to be noted that Christianity’s high-water mark in Britain was the late 19th century which saw a profusion of church building and church attendance. The decline set in after the First World War with many of those churches being abandoned then converted or demolished. (I can point to at least four sites in Manchester which were once Victorian churches). A recent study by the University of Derby found that the church’s antiquated attitudes to women was driving away one half of the population:

The report claims more than 50,000 women a year have deserted their congregations over the past two decades because they feel the church is not relevant to their lives.

It says that instead young women are becoming attracted to the pagan religion Wicca, where females play a central role, which has grown in popularity after being featured positively in films, TV shows and books. (More.)

TV and films only remind people of what’s always been there. Prior to the 19th century we were a Christian nation in name, of course, and I’ve always been grateful for our many cathedrals. But the far older pre-Christian ways are impossible to forget when you have a landscape littered with significant monuments such as Stonehenge, Avebury, Glastonbury Tor, the Callanish Circle, Silbury Hill, the Uffington White Horse, the Long Man of Wilmington, and the Cerne Abbas Giant whose enormous phallus is one of many things which makes me proud to be British. The latter pair can’t be claimed as prehistoric, unfortunately, but they remain fixtures in catalogues of Britain’s venerable un-Christian past.

Early Christianity did its best to co-opt the sites and festivals of our pagan ancestors but it seems as though two thousand years of dominance may now be drawing to a close. People today are far more sympathetic to spiritual attitudes which see the earth as something to be respected not exploited. And women will obviously respond to philosophies which don’t regard them as some unclean extrusion from a masculine creation with no part to play in religious ritual. Ask yourself what’s more attractive: the regressive bile of withered old men or a touch of pagan poetry?

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Great God Pan
Gay for god

11 thoughts on “Born again pagans”

  1. Bravo!

    I guess the only problem with the decline of a religion is the decline of a morality. There is much to dislike about Christian morality (this is coming from someone who never could take Christianity or its sillier tenets seriously from a very early age), but there is also much to dislike about other cults too. I hope we manage to evolve/develop something a bit more elevating next time. There are currently no cults/religions about that I know of that I would like to see dominant.

    If religions could clear out of the morality game, leave us with ‘do unto others’, and let well alone, that would be great. I am not convinced, however, that that little spot for religion in our brains is content with such a humble role. That scares me a bit – better the devil you know, all that.

    That said, Christianity has been determinedly fighting its way to irrelevancy for many a year now, and I don’t see any likelihood of change.

    …I just had a cool thought – how about ‘Religion – the board game’ where you throw dice and pick a card and each card makes up a component of a religion, and whatever combination you get means you have to pass certain laws against some harmless activity or something, and the person who gets the most converts, or kills the most infidels, wins. Just a thought. Oh, maybe you get to go to heaven too…

  2. Lets spare a thought for the poor fundamentalists. The way they see it, their nation is governed by Lucifer’s emissary on earth. Scientists are shattering their beliefs with all this talk of evolution. Gay- friendly Librarians stop them from burning books. Their homeschooled children are pray for all sorts of deviancies (Buffy The Vampire Slayer, weed, heavy metal, tattoos, etc, etc). And no matter what they say, people will always prefer sexual freedom- as opposed to abstinence and repression.

    Basically, reality is an insult to their values. And Newt Gingrich is trying to convince them that they are besieged by an army of omnisexual, liberal Satanists who want to exterminate them and their way of life (And Christmas, lets not forget Christmas).

    May Lord Summerisle have mercy on their ridiculous, bigoted souls.

  3. Hi Pancime. People tend to confuse morality or ethics (a pagan concept, it should be noted, via the Ancient Greeks) with religion because the two have been entwined for so long. The problem with the book-based religions is their morals are rendered immutable by being written down; the Koran is supposed to be an exact replica of a book in heaven, so nothing in it can ever be allowed to change. Contemporary pagans are more at ease with the modern world and with the idea of a contemporary morality. Since nothing is written down you’re far less likely to see things develop into rigid dogma. The book laws of the major religions were intended to keep control of tribal societies two thousand years ago. Many of their rules no longer make any sense to the way we live now.

    Dimitris: if pastors such as the meth-taking, male escort-obsessed Ted Haggard can’t stay on the path of righteousness then few others can be expected to. The common sense attitude would be to frame Christianity to accommodate the modern world, not expect the modern world–which is too fluid and diverse to submit to antiquated strictures–to accommodate to Middle Eastern tribal decrees.

  4. The idea that monotheistic religions introduced the notion of morality to humanity is baffling to me. And yet, I have had both Christian and Muslim friends pointing this out to me, as if it’s self- evident (and these are reasonable, moderately religious people). I find the notion patronizing to say the least (not to mention false). I think it’s deeply ingrained for many believers.

    As for your second point, I agree that it is exactly this rigidness and dogmatism of Christianity that have made it irrelevant for so many people. I believe the same point applies for the other monotheistic faiths as well, although I can only speak with authority on Christianity- having been exposed to it (in tedious detail) at school.

    Anyway, speaking as an agnostic, Paganism is a lot more fun than any of these austere, fossilized systems of thought.

  5. I’m don’t think of me as and anti-Christ either, but I really consider myself as a new born Pagan. I think believing and cherishing the gods of Nature is much less violent than a man crucified.
    But I’m surrounded by Christians, so I have to be careful. Luckily, my wife also cherishes Paganism, so we can dwell together, with not much interference from other people, who may (and most certainly will!) not understand our position.
    Well, that’s how life goes in every field, I suppose. Long life to the Great God Pan!

    All the best

  6. Paganism is a convenient term, but it seems to be, at least in my opinion, misleading because it was first used by Christians as a derogatory by-word for religions that were not their own. Obviously Buddhism, Islam, and Judaism are not pagan in nature, so what is its nature?

    For me the common threads between religions associated most prevailingly with the word ‘pagan’ are first and obviously polytheism as opposed to monotheism, giving the the older ways a variety of paths that merge and divert at will, offering a flexibility that is terrifying to people whose minds are so small that they can only see the world in black and white. Foolishly used words like morality do not apply here; if tattooing and body-mod are of central aspect to the religion, then simply look the other way if you don’t like it (another thing that can be said is that when one thinks different lands have their own indigenous deities, people are less inclined to try and convert, history has proven this for the most part), also in regards to another theme I see in this blog, they may not have all been in a hungry rush to welcome homosexuality, but pretty much all or most of the ‘pagan’ religions I know of were ‘far’ less opposed to it as say orthodox christianity. For example the Greeks / Macedonians simply wanted their lords to be straight enough to have a wife and father children, they had no qualms with surrounding themselves with art with equal portions of hetero / homosexuality in it, nor did the Thebans have any problems accepting being defended by an army of gay lovers. The first religion I know of that took a very negative view of this was Zoroastrianism (Monotheist – big surprise). For a person who thinks many forces are at work as opposed to a single rigid and inflexible one, willing partners butt fucking isn’t anything to concern oneself with, and taking it a step further into the old religions’ frisky tendencies, consensual blood drinking and other novelties aren’t of any immediate concern either. The only time wherein it went to far for me was with the common pedophilia, the Romans being the most guilty of this, which isn’t surprising, their upper classes went so far they became frightened of themselves and allowed the overly tilted pendulum to swing in the opposite and equally tasteless direction and became the world’s first orthodox christians.

    Another common thread being their deities were personifications of what they saw in the world around them. Now there were plenty of very war-like religions following the pagan standard, unsurprisingly, the cruel and war-like ones entrall me much more, but christians and muslims looking back in history simply ‘cannot’ use this a justification for their actions because just as many were passive by nature, and it goes against the prophets’ own (supposed) dogma to convert and the point of a sword, how merciful indeed.

    Examining a relatively war-like preChristian culture closer to where I live than say the Druids or the Babylonians, the Aztecs (of the past, and not their modern descendants) bore a facade that would repulse many; ‘massive’ scale festivals of human sacrifice – I won’t linguistically masturbate over the details, this being a very pro-peace article, extensive body modifications, and pantheon of deities wilder and more taboo shattering than the most left-handed of hindu tantrists.

    Modern christians forget though, people have always fought, this isn’t a pagan invention, and the point of human sacrifice wasn’t aesthetics, as it was to the Inquisition, but appeasing the more the destructive deities who were always as present as the nurturing ones. There was no true division between things like dark and light for them, they were part of the same world. Seeing things in just black and white, ‘if you’re not kissing our asses, then you want to kill us’ type attitudes are something that puts a society “in the garbage heap of history” and not other mentioned things.

    Some of the ancient world’s costliest wars were those between Greece/Macedonia and Persia. Now I am not one for Persian-bashing – I hear enough of that around here believe me – I think they had many things more accurate than the Greeks and vice-versa, but I see in history a direct correlation to having one god, and trying more so than one would otherwise, to force oneself upon neighbors, than would people who have many or none.

    Back to the New World, unfaithfulness to one’s spouse (either gender) or treachery against one’s bloodline was met with severely harsh punishment, which really cannot be said about christian societies who allegedly place concepts like marriage and family upon sacred pedestals. Also, the human sacrifice wasn’t self-indulgent, and it was practiced in the open and under broad daylight for all the terrified onlookers to see the price of their current favor in the gods’ eyes. The number of people killed by the MesoAmericans and the bloodiness of the act was easily surpassed by the number killed sadistically by the Spanish and other European -christian- successors ‘behind closed doors and for very self-indulgent reasons.’

    As always, my apologies for the long-windedness, but I live in the bible belt of America and am always in the mood for a rousing game of ‘thrash the idol-haters over the heads with their own idol’.

  7. No need to apologise, I can understand the frustration if you’re surrounded by TV preachers and their flocks.

    Re: Greek attitudes to sex, there’s always been a lot of confusion and supposition around the subject. James Davidson’s recent book The Greeks and Greek Love attempts to disentangle what can be found in historical study from the various half-truths which have circulated since the 19th century. He writes about that here.

    It’s ironic that so many churches and public buildings in America –especially New England churches–have Classical porticoes with their Doric or Corinthian columns derived from pagan temples. Many Victorian Britons preferred the Gothic style precisely because it avoided making ecclesiastic buildings look un-Christian. Makes you wonder how deep Newt Gingrich’s ignorance must run when he complains about paganism while working in the Capitol building.

  8. This is a fascinating article. It’s hardly a surprise that the Greek views on homosexuality varied. After all, Greece at the time was a network of city- states that rarely saw eye to eye. They tended to come together against common enemies such as the Persian Empire, but they weren’t above fighting with each other the rest of the time (Athens vs Sparta being the most obvious example). I should point out though that the relationships between men and women in ancient Greece were extremely complex as well. For example, Aspasia, the famous consort of Perikles (the leader of Athens during the Golden Age) may have been a courtesan. In Athenian society, high class prostitutes were far more liberated and educated than other women.

    This is why it’s hilarious when conservative pundits see the Persian wars (and Alexander’s campaign) as a clash of civilizations between a monolithic Eastern Empire and a precursor of democracy. It’s deeply simplistic and does a disservice to both the Persians and the Greeks.

    For all its flaws, Hellenic culture- along with most pagan (for want of a better word) faiths that I can think of- did not see sex as a sin. Plus their gods were anthropocentric. They had human characteristics and flaws and were not always to be trusted (as opposed to an omnipotent entity who is right about everything). That to me makes paganism more interesting than monotheism. On the other hand, I am a Greek agnostic (and a scientist to boot), so I don’ t tend to see civilization as an invention of the Christian West.

    Apologies about the length of my post. It’s a fascinating subject and I couldn’t help myself.

  9. Re: poisonous Pat and his fear for his nation.

    In my humble opinion, EVERY nation ends up on the scrap heap of history, regardless of what gods/goddesses/ideals they believe in, or what sexual activity they do or do not allow.

    Flipping that on its head, the societies that punished homosexuality with extreme prejudice haven’t done too well either. The 1000 year Reich wasn’t too hot on homosexuality and it only managed 1.2% of its projected time as a nation.

    Here in the West we’re particularly guilty of this desire for national longevity, so much so that we mythologise our own short national pasts and call a 3000 year old culture a ‘developing nation’ without a trace of irony.

  10. Dimitris: I see the Greek gods as being far more sophisticated than the Christian conception. The Old Testament god is gendered but has no erotic aspect at all (so why is it a he?) unlike the Greek gods who are not only gendered but express their sexuality in many different ways, turning into animals, clouds, showers of gold and so on. Women are also allowed in the pantheon, unlike in the misogynist major religions.

    David: yes, I find it bizarre when people imply their own nation has some inherent claim on longevity when that nation is younger than many of the buildings in other countries. But that’s the nature of American idiocracy: hubristic and myopic.

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