Why Has the West Become Neopagan?

MICHAEL D. O'BRIEN

Educators are rightly concerned that young people are not learning to enjoy reading. But in an effort to stimulate interest, they are introducing many books"of questionable merit, books which present to the young a neopagan world view.

Michael O'Brien


Few things are as stimulating to the young as the mysterious and forbidden, and teachers know this. As a result, neopagan literature is making its way into classroom reading programs, public and private school libraries, and the children's section of public libraries. [1] As the appetite for fantasy increases, the industry grows, and writers and publishers turn to it in droves. Of course, some fantasy titles are of good quality, written in the Christian tradition of George MacDonald, J. R. R. Tolkien, and C S. Lewis. Others are blatantly anti-Christian — easy enough to identify. But in the wide zone between the two poles there is a large and growing body of children's literature that is actually spiritual indoctrination wrapped in pleasing adventure packages. This kind of fiction may be the most harmful of all; it is also the most difficult to identify.

Why has the west become neopagan?

Neopaganism, although it holds some beliefs in common with the old paganism, is very different from the classical paganism of Greece and Rome and the cultic paganism of the more bloodthirsty ancient religions. It is essentially a slide back into the darkness of pre-Christianity, and that is a much graver spiritual problem than the condition of those peoples who were groping their way out of the darkness. The latter were ignorant, cruel and in spiritual bondage, because they had not yet encountered the light of the one true God. The modern neopagan has known that light yet chooses to explore the darkness again. Regardless of what he might think about his position on the spiritual map, he is in no way standing upon firm land. Neopaganism is not a permanent state: it is neither fully pagan nor fully Christian. It is a transition. It is a downward slide

Why is this happening? And how is it happening? The answer to these compelling questions is complex and would demand a lengthy examination of the history of the Western world, a separate study that is beyond the purposes of this book. [2] But perhaps at this point we need only consider a rough sketch of the processes that have led to our current confusion. The modernity of our times is the result of a series of historical developments in man's understanding of human nature, God, and the universe. Christian Humanism, which began as a reflection on the nature of man and his place in the cosmos, gradually mutated over the centuries, influenced by many social, political, philosophical, and religious factors. The Protestant Reformation, for example, elevated the authority of Sacred Scripture but at the same time instituted the principle of the individual's right to interpret that Scripture as he saw fit, thus placing man above the Word. Human subjectivity became a kind of autonomous magisterial authority cut off from the combined charisms of the universal Church, resulting in the proliferation of tens of thousands of Protestant sects, each with its own interpretation.

Secular humanism arose from the seedbed of a fragmented Christianity, which the new agnostics believed to be thoroughly discredited by its internal contradictions and religious wars. During the so-called “Enlightenment” of the eighteenth century, the rise of science, the outbreak of revolutions, and the emergence of the modern political state all worked toward devaluing man's sense of the hierarchical creation, turning his attention and energies to the immanent world, where he sought to build the City of Man — his dream of a secular salvation.

In the following century a branch of humanism developed that attempted to make a final break with the concept of God and religion. James Hitchcock describes it as follows:

The strain of modern Humanism which comes down through Feuerbach, Marx, and Nietzsche can be called Promethean Humanism, after the figure in Greek mythology who stole fire from the gods and gave it to man. It is a Humanism that bases itself on rebellion and a denial of God. . . The new Humanism of the nineteenth century embodied a demonic urge to negate and destroy. As Nietzsche saw clearly it was not only a matter of not believing in God. Once God had been denied, man could achieve true freedom only by denying all moral constraints on himself and inventing his own morality. The human will alone became sovereign. [3]

Obviously, a society based on demonic urges will not survive very long. But negation and destruction can take less horrible forms than Nazism or Stalinism. Societies that reject the absolute moral law based on divine authority while maintaining a more or less benign veneer for a time may in the long run bring about a more thorough destruction of man, because they do not at first reveal themselves for what they are. We must keep in mind that the key concept of modern humanism is the sovereign human will. But what can this possibly mean in terms of nation states and entire peoples? Does some mystical sovereign will of “the people” exist? No, it does not, because a population composed of autonomous individuals, each armed with his “sovereign will”, is a recipe for total chaos. For this reason, authority in a secularized “democratic cosmos” has become more and more concentrated in the hands of a new class of social engineers, the group C. S. Lewis called the Conditioners. The power of man to make of himself what he pleases, Lewis pointed out, actually means the power of some men to make other men into what they please. [4]

On every level of modern society the Conditioners shape and reshape our concepts of reality, and these concepts are overwhelmingly secular humanist. Education, communications media, high culture, low culture, political theory, psychology, and so on, have all been affected to their very roots; even Christian theology and Scripture scholarship have been infected by so-called “demythologizing”, which would reduce salvation history to the politics of Flatland, in which only a social salvation is desirable or possible. Our century, the age of genocide and total war, is also the age of utopian dreams.

But man is more than a social animal. He is an immortal soul, regardless of whether he denies or accepts this truth about himself, and thus he cannot live long without a spirituality of some kind. In the spiritual vacuum created by secular humanism, he has begun to cast about in every direction, searching for a set of concepts that might reconnect him to a much larger universe, might reassure him that he is more than just a clever talking beast. He is especially drawn to those concepts that do not demand of him any moral constraints, for outside restrictions on his desires would be a threat to his sovereign self.

The Gnostic streams that had bubbled below the surface of Western society for many centuries erupted during the nineteenth century in occult movements and new religions, then swelled into a flood tide during the latter half of this century. We would be mistaken if we were to think of this phenomenon as a purely psychological, philosophical, or sociological development. There is a spiritual element involved here also, one that has manifested itself powerfully and perhaps in unprecedented ways. There is much evidence of the influence of evil spirits, and they are especially active in those circles that encourage spirituality that is not in submission to the law of God. To put it simply, we now find ourselves in a war zone. But the nature of this war, though relentless and increasing in intense is not so much open combat as it is guerrilla warfare. We should not assume that, just because a few fright shows such as The Exorcist or Stephen King novels testify to the reality of supernatural evil, modern man will awake to his danger and seek real help. Such entertainments simply treat the devil as some kind of cosmic bogeyman, mythologizing him, rendering him so grotesque that he becomes unthinkably distant and unreal — sealed in a horror flick. In fact, Satan is truly horrible, but he wins people over by presenting sin and error and dangerous spiritual activities as something attractive. And no spirituality is more attractive to the sovereign self than neopaganism.

Endnotes

  1. I use the term “neopagan” in its proper definition: revived paganism or new paganism, not half-pagan or semi-pagan, which is how it is sometimes (incorrectly) used. Back to text.
  2. Readers interested in these questions should have a look at the highly readable, insightful book, What Is Secular Humanism? By James Hitchcock (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Servant Books, 1982). Five chapters from What is Secular Humanism? are now offered on the CERC web site. Back to text.
  3. Ibid., p. 48. Back to text.
  4. The Abolition of Man (New York: Collier Books, Macmillan Publishing, 1955), p. 72. Back to text.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

O'Brien, Michael. “Why Has the West Become Neopagan?” In Chapter 5 of Landscape With Dragons: The Battle for Your Child's Mind. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998), 93-97.

Reprinted by permission of Ignatius Press. All rights reserved. Landscape With Dragons: The Battle for Your Child's Mind.- ISBN 0-89870-678-5.

The balance of chapter five looks at a number of well known authors whose writing falls into the gray area of neopagan literature, and provides guidelines for parents on how to identify and evaluate the appropriateness of such literature.

THE AUTHOR

Michael O'Brien is a professional artist and the author of a series of novels including his most recent A Cry of Stone, the best selling Father Elijah, and Eclipse of the Sun. In addition, he is the author of A Landscape With Dragons: The Battle for Your Child's Mind which looks at the proper role of children's literature in the forming of character (see sample chapters from this book on the CERC site). O'Brien's articles on faith and culture have appeared in numerous journals throughout the English-speaking world. Michael O'Brien is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center. Visit his web site at: studiobrien.com.

Copyright 1998 Ignatius Press


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