Monday, September 6, 2010

The Need for Paganism and Heathenry in the Modern World

There are many who would argue that the revival of long-dead belief systems in this modern day is nothing more than an exercise in escapism and anachronism, nothing more than LARPing given a philosophy. Some stand on more spiritual grounds, arguing from the belief that Christianity and modern monotheism is the right answer to the needs of humanity by addressing suffering and offering redemption and second chances. Others take the tack that its nothing more than superstition and the belief in some new set of imaginary sky-people that has no bearing on a modern, rational scientific age. Yet all three of these arguments are being made around the very large elephant in the room: Pagan and Heathen groups and belief systems, contrary to what our opponents would say, are growing quite steadily and rapidly with an estimated one million combined living in the United States today(1). If any of those arguments are correct then how is it that such allegedly anachronistic, irrelevant, primitive, and irrational beliefs are growing so steadily and quickly?

What the opponents, critics, and enemies of the modern revival forget in their arguments is that they've completely missed the point on all counts. Belief systems, ideas, and ideologies develop and grow because there is a need for them in society that must be filled. If there was no need in society for Pagan and Heathen ideas then they would not be finding the following they are. These arguments also forget that the current revival is one that was a long time coming. There have been upsurges throughout Western history of pre-Christian beliefs and ideas that, while limited in impact in their time, have ultimately been a part of the larger trends that are emerging now.

After all, if these ideas were no longer useful or relevant then the Illiad, the Odyssey, and Beowulf would not be part of high school English curriculums across the United States. The stories of the ancients would not be referenced or involved in books, movies, or plays. Great works like the Lord of the Rings, the numerous movies and shows about Greco-Roman Gods and heroes, or even in as mundane places as the Mighty Thor from Marvel Comics or roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons would not be the widely known cultural touchstones they are without these ideas and influences. Each, while not literal adaptations, draw on the same ideals as the pre-Christian sources they are based on or are inspired by. The heroes of these stories perform deeds and act in a fashion that would not be seen as out of place or unexpected in older times.

It isn't just in the stories that we see this influence. While there are plenty of people who are called to the revival by stories and ideas presented there it is when they get to the actual material itself that the real connection is found. Here you could again argue that the people seeking to reconstruct the ethical and philosophical ideas of the West's pre-Christian past are engaging in escapism and rebellion against modern society but this again is an argument that falls short. People who come to these ideas end up staying with them and remaining engaged in society. There are groups that do practice what is admitted to be roleplay and some degree of escape from society at large like the SCA or the Adrian Empire. These groups are also ones that have no particular religious ideas behind them and are left behind when the people who participate in them go back home. Pagan practices, on the other hand, don't stop when the ritual ends. There are Heathen and Pagan schoolteachcers, doctors, lawyers, businesspeople, and in the case of Dan Halloran of New York City elected officials active in society who live their ideals and beliefs on a day to day basis. A belief system that is irrelevant to the modern age, one that is nothing more than escapism, would not be one that would produce people who live those ideas on a day to day basis while participating in society in the same ways everyone else does.

The bottom line is that Pagan and Heathen groups, traditions, and organizations are here to stay not because they offer some kind of pacifier or easy escape but because they provide meaning and fulfill the needs of the people who come to them. That we are furthermore growing at the highest rate of any religious group in America and are on target to surpass Judaism in size if all of the Pagan and Heathen groups in the US were combined as one population by 2012 argues that we are anything but escapist primitives. The real question is not if this will be recognized by other religious groups in American and Western society but rather when and how it will come to pass.



1 comment:

  1. Great article. It's important to be recognized, not just by religious groups but by all parts of society. One example that I'm familiar with myself is the 12-step recovery movement. Heathen and Pagan spirituality is not acknowledged there. This makes recovery from substance abuse and other harmful behaviors much harder for us than for e.g. Christians, whose religion is affirmed in the Rooms.