I’m writing in the dining room of my family’s home in Pittsburgh, a yellow-and-green craftsman house that’s a century old, not far from the confluence of the Ohio River in the Allegheny Mountains. Some 270 million years ago, the spot where I’m now sitting would have sat next to the tropical shoals of a warm, globe-spanning, shallow ocean, populated by massive invertebrates and amphibians, the oxygen-rich air giving flight to dragonflies with the wingspans of birds and arachnids of nightmarish proportions. ‘To consider the landscapes that once existed is to feel the draw of a temporal wanderlust,’ writes the palaeontologist Thomas Halliday in Otherlands: A Journey Through Earth’s Extinct Worlds (2022), describing the past as not just ‘an endless expanse of unfathomable time, but … a series of worlds, simultaneously fabulous yet familiar.’
The future too, I’ll add. Eventually, everything loses its war of attrition with entropy: steel and concrete, glass and iron, all of the monuments of humanity. A half-billion years from now, and with the vagaries of plate tectonics, the place that was once Pittsburgh may again be in the tropics, or the arctic, or under the ocean. Some geologists predict that North America will be part of a future supercontinent, that Europe and Africa, Asia and Australia will all coalesce together as they did when Pangea existed, and then the hillside on which my little house stands will be long gone, buried under layers of strata, or on the floor of a mighty ocean.
Of course, humanity will be long extinct, our most enduring contribution to the geological record a precipitous rise in carbon dioxide and perhaps a narrow band of plastic threaded through the strata. Bertrand Russell, the great philosophical freethinker who forthrightly admitted to trembling at the thought of the heat death of the cosmos, wrote in a 1903 issue of The Independent Review that:
all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness … are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the débris of a universe in ruins.
Any genuine accounting that plays the tape forward must admit that, at least on material and empirical grounds, Russell’s literal conclusion is broadly correct, but the pessimism is an issue of interpretation. I rather side with Walt Whitman, who a half-century before wrote in his poetry collection Leaves of Grass (1855) that:
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.
Their understanding of the literal particulars of the situation regarding our eventual destiny is broadly the same, but how they choose to draw meaning from that reality is different. Russell quivers at our demise, while Whitman merely shrugs and smiles, continuing on for another day.
Whitman has long been my secular gospel. His verse is both steadfastly materialist and cosmically transcendental, a poetry commensurate with being able to look at a city street and imagine it millions of years hence, underneath sweltering tropic skies or frigid arctic nights. A sense of deep time, and the way in which the aeons inevitably erase all our vanities and virtues alike. When it comes to metaphysics, I share with Russell and Whitman a material sense of the Universe’s composition, a belief in the immensity of this reality, a sublime and terrifying reality of our relative insignificance. In terms of what I do with that knowledge, I attempt as much as I can to embrace the present hopefulness of Whitman more than the understandable despair of Russell. It’s easy to fall into Russell’s misery: there is a fundamental bluntness to his contention that is estimably respectable, for he doesn’t obscure the particulars of the situation.
And yet I think that the melancholy engendered by the mercurial flux of our world is a particularly post-Christian anxiety, where, though he was an atheist (perhaps especially because he was one), Russell’s despair was born out of the flouted promises of Christian resurrection and eternity. To take atheism seriously is to admit that the abolishment of a belief in objective meaning must alter how we approach the Universe. There is no going back after the death of God, but that death is always experienced through a particular type of absence – the absence of religious belief. Nihilism is always a particular species of frustrated Christianity. Whitman and I don’t labour under those same suppositions because, more than a post-Christian (and I assume that I’m that), I find that the problem of meaning in this void is often best addressed by a type of pantheism, an embrace of that change. More than a former Christian, what I think of myself on some days as is an aspiring pagan.
There is something romantic in the idea of paganism, of embracing the ocean and atmosphere, the day and the night, the Sun and the Moon. An acknowledgement not of abstractions, but of that which one is capable of seeing and hearing, of touching and tasting. Regardless of our own supposed dominion over the environment, we’re ultimately still very small when compared with the grandeur of nature. Because of that clear fact – which is neither doctrine nor axiom but simply observable reality – nature deserves some portion of our pious supplications. There is a spiritual perennialism of genuflecting before something in the Universe so much bigger than yourself, of offering your prayers towards something so tangibly visible. Because of that, even if I’m not a pagan, often I think that I’d like to be. I’d like to consider which spiritual values are conveyed across centuries of time, and what might be enduring about something like paganism.
First, this requires us to define what exactly the word ‘paganism’ means – no easy matter. In the classical world, paganism was contrasted with Judaism and Christianity; it originally constituted the polytheistic folk religions of the ancient Greeks and Romans, but to which later definitions would expand to include cultures as disparate as the Egyptians and the Celts, the Norse and the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. There is a natural flattening in this regard, a reductionism that merges together a tremendous diversity of cultures and belief systems into one homogeneous whole: pagan. Yet there is paradoxically a risk in not acknowledging the similarities as well, in not identifying what is distinctive about the ruptures, first of Christianity, and then its child – modernity.
The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins writes in The New Science of the Enchanted Universe: An Anthropology of Most of Humanity (2022) that the ‘dependent position in a universe of more powerful metahuman beings has been the condition of humanity for the greater part of its history and the majority of its societies,’ for whom people dwelled within a ‘zone of immanence’. Osiris, Dionysus and Loki may be different gods, as surely as Egyptians, the ancient Greeks and the Norse people are different cultures, but, as Sahlins’s argument can be extended, differences in mythology are in some sense superficial. What’s important is that they shared a feeling of sublimity and awe towards the Universe.
What would it mean to worship a nature that we can observe with our own eyes?
‘It is crucial to stress right from the start that until the 20th century people did not call themselves pagans to describe the religion they practised,’ writes Owen Davies in Paganism: A Very Short Introduction (2011). ‘The notion of paganism, as it is generally understood today, was created by the early Christian Church … a label that Christians applied to others, one of the antitheses that were central to the process of Christian self-definition.’ Where Christianity was abstract, paganism was concrete; the former marked by rationality, the later by emotionality; the first defined by scripture and doctrines, the second by sensuality and rites. To be a Christian was to be connected to an eternal beyond, while the pagan dwelled within the mucky particulars of the natural world.
All of this, of course, is gross simplification, which was the intent of those Church Fathers in the early centuries of Christianity who drew such a distinction, ignoring the intrinsic sensuality implicit within the death sacrifice of the gospels, as well as the philosophical foundations of the Greco-Roman religion. Most importantly, however, was that Christianity understood humanity as separate from an intrinsically fallen nature, and that we are tasked with dominion over the fish of the sea and the beasts of the field. All of creation was intended for us. This way of approaching the natural world predates the scientific and industrial revolutions, though those later developments supplied the technological means of finally establishing that desired dominion. But the justification for that dominion itself was always implicit within those much older Western religious ideals. Now, as our envionments fail, precisely because of that noxious belief in our supremacy over nature, how much more shattering is the perceived failure of meaning we now face? In our present epoch, what then would it mean to reject that rejection, to re-embrace a variety of paganism? Not necessarily the worship of some arcane, dead pantheon, but to supplicate before a seamless nature of which we’re an integral part? Most importantly, a nature that we can observe with our own eyes?
Over the past two centuries – and perhaps longer – there has been an epistemological and cultural shift that has been referred to as disenchantment. Whereby our reality once thrummed with a glowing meaning – where every rock and stream, tree and animal, was endowed with a sense of the sacred – it became drained of transcendent significance, it became disenchanted. Left behind was what the Church understood as a fallen world, and which today positivist philosophy interprets as an inert material one, but the result was the same, what the 18th-century philosopher Friedrich Schiller called the ‘de-divination’ of the world, and what the 20th-century German sociologist Max Weber (who is most associated with the concept) called ‘de-magicisation’. The political theorist Jeffrey Green describes disenchantment as marking the ‘retreat of magic and myth from social life through processes of secularisation and rationalisation.’
But in this ‘Just So’ story of when the gods made their flight, it can be difficult to identify who is at blame. One version blames positivist interpretations of science that reduced all of experience to base materialism, but the Protestant Reformation is often seen as the beginning of such disenchantment (especially by Weber). A good claim could be made that Christianity itself was responsible. There is a story in Plutarch that an Egyptian mariner once heard an echoing declaration that ‘The great god Pan is dead!’ For the Church Fathers, this legend has long been associated with the birth of Christ, but it’s also a convenient allegorical illustration of the ways in which the new faith cleaved previous relationships between divinity and nature, humanity and the environment. Disenchantment at its core is depaganisation.
Though depaganisation included the muting of the oracles and the smashing of idols, in the broader sense it meant the loss of a direct human connection to the divinity of nature. When the term ‘paganism’ comes to mean only a particular set of stereotypical associations – Dionysian rites and Orphic mysteries, Astarte columns or Druidic stone circles – it can serve to obscure some of the metaphysical import that those things more deeply represent. For my purposes, we can define paganism even more inexactly, but paradoxically with more utility.
What paganism most broadly imagines is a particular relationship between immanence and transcendence within nature, and this relationship generates a certain enchanted meaning of which there is a deficit in the contemporary world, at least among those supposedly worldly, educated, secular and agnostic folks such as myself. In an experience of transcendence, a person is able to connect themselves to a unity above and beyond our reality; with immanence they comprehend the divinity within the material world. What this union offers is a synthesis of the sacred and the profane, what Michael York in Pagan Theology (2003) describes as the abolition of ‘any true hierarchy between the temporal and the permanent, between the physical and spiritual, between this-world and the otherworld.’ Such paganism rectifies the very philosophical doubts and scepticisms that engendered disenchantment in the first place. After all, one can hardly be an atheist when it comes to the Sun, the Moon, the wind, the rain, the ocean, the soil.
Central Park is as worthy a place for an altar as Delphi. God is not just in the woods and seas
To be clear, paganism need not be read literally here as referring to acolytes in the Temple of Artemis or pilgrims to Delphi (though it certainly doesn’t preclude those examples either). One could be a pagan Christian, a pagan Jew, a pagan Muslim, a pagan atheist. When I use the word ‘pagan’ in this context, it refers less to whatever arbitrary deity you supplicate before, or indeed if you bow towards any god at all, than it does to an approach of worshipfulness towards enchanted reality itself. In this regard, paganism is an approach to observable experience, a manner of psychologically re-enchanting materiality, physicality and nature with a divine significance. If scientific positivism and religious fundamentalism both find a concreteness in abstraction, by assuming a unitary reality, whether it’s God or physical law, then paganism rather finds abstraction in concreteness, seeing the very essence of spirit in the sound of a babbling brook, the moss on the side of a tree, or a sunset over Manhattan.
Indeed, the last example serves to differentiate this kind of paganism from mere pastoralism or conservative nostalgia, because what it seeks to do isn’t to pretend that the only authentic existence is living in a stone cottage among the bucolic groves but rather to elevate all matter, wherever it is found. Central Park is as worthy a place for an altar as Delphi. God is not just in the woods and seas, but in concrete and glass as well. What this paganism offers is the possibility of such an authentic experience in the now, a personal restoration of that lost enchantment from long ago. The philosopher Charles Taylor in his essay collection Dilemmas and Connections (2011) describes how:
Despite the widespread loss of the magical world … a strong evaluation of meaning is still possible in the modern world, even if it is a world painted by a reductive and mechanistic science, so long as this reductive language doesn’t swallow the self-perceived integrity of the evaluating agent, so that it cannot be said to truly evaluate the wonder of the world and be so motivated, by this evaluation, to respond in love.
That last word is not mere sentimentalism, for an invigorated re-enchanting paganism requires a love of materiality, a love of the natural world. Not its reduction into mere practicality and instrumentalism, but a true immersion of the self into that greater being.
Easier said than done, of course. There have been, to be sure, numerous attempts at restoring a type of pagan worship, with the result being the establishment of dozens of vibrant belief communities, some with roots that go back to the middle of the 19th century (even if their own claimed-ancient origins are often more mythic than historical). Explaining the genealogy of terms like ‘pagan’ and ‘heathen’, Ronald Hutton writes in Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft (1999) that such concepts ‘by the 19th century … [had] widely accepted associations with the countryside and the natural world,’ with a vanguard of spiritual avant-gardists attempting the restoration, or rather creation, of novel faiths intended to be ‘joyous, liberationist, and life-affirming traditions, profoundly and valuably connected with both the natural world and with human spirit creativity.’
Such was the revival that saw the emergence of faiths like Wicca and Goddess Worship, or of the various restorationist movements devoted to the Hellenic, Norse and Celtic pantheons, as well as a resurgence of interest in Indigenous belief systems of colonised peoples throughout the world. These faiths are significant to a great number of people (Hutton in 1999 estimated a quarter of a million in Great Britain alone; the 2021 Census put the figure at around 70,000) for whom these beliefs and rites confer meaning, in part by dwelling within a consideration of the immanent and transcendent.
For those of us who are unaffiliated with anything or who are adherents of a faith not commonly thought of as ‘pagan’, what benefits have I found in formulating my own pagan theology? I’m reminded of the infamous 4th-century Roman emperor Julian the Apostate. Nephew of the Emperor Constantine who established Christianity as the official Church of the empire, Julian rather preferred to revert back to paganism. Christopher Kelly in The London Review of Books describes how Julian desired that his philosophers should formulate a ‘technically exact language to express their understanding of the nature of god, the creation of the universe, the relationship of humanity and divinity, and the possibility of salvation.’ This was to be a ‘radical paganism – an attempt to work out a set of unified and coherent non-Christian beliefs justified by a canon of sacred texts, supported by an institutional structure and explicated by a doctrinal theology.’
Today, where a crisis of faith manifests in those cursed siblings of meaningless nihilism and fervent fundamentalism, and humanity’s relationship to nature is so inequitable that our economy, technology and industry threatens ecological apocalypse, how useful would it be to have a pagan theology, a new expression of divinity and the sacred commensurate with our current ruptures and crises? Julian was felled in battle before his paganism could become a codified faith, but it’s still a goal worth working for. What would a pagan canon look like?
The Anthropocene is the cataclysmic result of civilisation’s continuing depaganisation
Thinking about Hutton’s description of 19th-century pagan rites involving connection with the ‘natural world and with human spirit creativity’, how do I begin to canonise my own scripture and creed of ‘paganism’ that answers the rationalism of an Aquinas or the puritanism of a Calvin, which attempts to valourise nature in its rightful manner? As my other favoured prophet, Whitman’s great forerunner William Blake, wrote in his book Jerusalem (1804-20): ‘I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s.’ My liturgy includes Henry David Thoreau’s observation in ‘Walking’ (1851) that ‘In wildness is the preservation of the world,’ and his mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson’s claim in Nature (1836) that the lover of the environment is:
he whose inward and outward sense are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood. His intercourse with heaven and earth becomes part of his daily food.
For scripture, there is Annie Dillard’s chthonic meditations in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), of how:
After the one extravagant gesture of creation in the first place, the universe has continued to deal exclusively in extravagances, flinging intricacies and colossi down aeons of emptiness, heaping profusions on profligacies with ever-fresh vigour. The whole show has been on fire from the word go.
The answer from the biologist Lynn Margulis and her son Dorion Sagan to the question posed by the title of their book What Is Life? (1995) is that ‘life on Earth is more like a verb. It repairs, maintains, re-creates, and outdoes itself.’
For a metaphysic, I embrace the polymath James Lovelock’s claim in Healing Gaia: Practical Medicine for the Planet (1991) that our planet:
might in certain ways be alive – not as the ancients saw her, a sentient goddess with purpose and foresight – more like a tree. A tree that exists, never moving except to sway in the wind, yet endlessly conversing with the sunlight and the soil.
As theology, mine draws from the 17th-century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza’s pantheistic contention in a letter to a colleague that ‘the world is a necessary effect of the divine nature’, and of the contemporary German philosopher Andreas Weber who in The Biology of Wonder: Aliveness, Feeling, and the Metamorphosis of Science (2016) describes a ‘poetic ecology’ whereby we shall intellectually and spiritually restore the ‘human to its rightful place within “nature” – without sacrificing the otherness, the strangeness and the nobility of other beings.’ Most importantly, as an ethic, such paganism must exemplify that sublimity of my prophet, the 19th-century Whitman, and his axiomatic injunction in Leaves of Grass that ‘For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.’
Radical paganism can answer with the unity of all people and their sacred obligations to each other and the planet
The relationship between ideas and material conditions is a complicated one, for which there is no sweeping and universal theory that can adequately explain every single historical instance of interaction between the two. While it would be naive to assume that the spiritual values that a society holds have a straightforwardly deterministic effect on everything else (even a cursory understanding of religious hypocrisy will show how little influence religious values sometimes have), it’s also a grave error to reduce issues of faith and meaning to mere epiphenomenon. That the full degradation of the environment has only increased over the past two centuries, not just because of instrumental economic reasoning (itself a variety of religious faith) but also as disenchantment more fully promulgated throughout culture, is not incidental. The Anthropocene is the cataclysmic result of civilisation’s continuing depaganisation.
If we grant a charged power to pagan reasoning, to its ability to better represent the proper relationship between humanity and nature, then there are certain possibilities that must naturally be entertained. Yet the wholesale reformation of spiritual values that underpin late capitalism seems unlikely, at least as the status quo currently is maintained. And even if we could grant that if a more lustily pagan ethic defined our culture, there would perhaps be more of a desire not to see the temperature of the planet continue rising to an apocalyptic conclusion. Whether or not paganism can save the planet is uncertain, but I fully believe that paganism might be able to save the individual. Of being able to save myself.
I’ve purposefully elided the very real connections between some neopaganism and the fascist Right, as figures like the Italian philosopher Julius Evola or the French writer Alain de Benoist have long championed an idolatry of ‘blood and soil’ nationalism that makes recourse to a pagan vocabulary. If we’re to envision a radical paganism, then it must be in response to those sorts of figures, one that doesn’t equate the sacred with this or that piece of land behind this or that arbitrary border, but rather one that as Spinoza equates all of humanity and all of existence with holiness. Such an ethic will become all the more crucial in the coming decades as climate refugees from the global south may indeed face the spectre of an ecofascism that dehumanises them and then brutalises them. A reactionary paganism, such as that of Evola and de Benoist, naturally embraces the logic of genocide, whereas the countering radical paganism can answer with the unity of all people and their sacred obligations to each other and the planet.
This then is the true creed, as explicated by the Yankton Sioux writer, activist and philosopher Zitkala-Sa in her essay ‘Why I Am a Pagan’ (1902) for The Atlantic Monthly, whereby regardless of our race or faith, our ethnicity or nationality, we are ‘God’s creatures’ worthy of ‘Infinite Love’. Therein Zitkala-Sa would write how as:
A wee child toddling in a wonder world, I prefer … my excursions into the natural gardens where the voice of the Great Spirit is heard in the twittering of birds, the rippling of mighty waters, and the sweet breathing of flowers. If this is Paganism, then at present, at least, I am a Pagan.