The Return of Paganism
When a 28-year-old person identifying as transgender shot up a Tennessee school in March, killing three children and three adults, the usual grim afterlife of tragedy was underlined by an odd note: One by one, media outlets rushed to apologize for “misgendering” the shooter, who, they explained, had been born female but had recently begun identifying as male.
How to make sense of such a statement? And what to do when a newspaper headline tells you about a “trans woman left sobbing in JFK Airport after TSA agent hit her testicles”? Appealing to reason hardly helps, as J.K. Rowling and others learned the hard way when trying to ask simple questions such as how one might define sex if not according to the chromosomes rooted in literally every cell of our bodies. Instead, anyone wishing to find his way through the thicket of American public discourse these days should start by embracing one simple and terrifying idea: The barbarians are at the gates.
I mean this almost literally. Everywhere you turn these days, pagans are afoot, busily hacking away at the Christian and Jewish foundations of American life and replacing them with a cosmology that would have been absolutely coherent to followers of, say, Voltumna, the Etruscan earth god, or to those who worshipped the Celt tribal protector Toutatis.
If you think the above paragraph is a little bit overblown, consider the numbers. In 1990, scholars from Trinity College set out to learn just how many of their fellow Americans practiced some form of pagan religion. The numbers were unsurprisingly small: about 8,000, or enough to pack your average Journey reunion concert. But the researchers asked again in 2008, and this time, 340,000 Americans said yes to paganism. A decade later, the Pew survey posed the same question, and, if it is to believed, there are now about 1.5 million Americans professing an array of pagan persuasions, from Wicca to the Viking lore, making paganism one of the nation’s fastest-growing persuasions. So fast-growing, in fact, that my colleague Maggie Phillips recently reported in Tablet magazine about the thriving, and officially recognized, pagan faith groups within the U.S. Army. “What’s important now,” one of its leaders, Sergeant Drake Sholar, told Phillips, “is showing religious respect and understanding across the board as Norse Pagans, or Heathens, return to a distinguishable religious practice.”
Amen, selah. But as we respect and understand those who profess paganism outright and sincerely, we should worry about those—many more of them—who go by other names and profess different affinities yet whose worldview is consistently, coherently, and crushingly pagan. There are millions more heathens who would shudder to be called such, yet who offer a vision of a perfectly pagan American future. It behooves us, then, to reckon with the paganism in our midst.
And that, it turns out, is not an easy task, mainly because “pagan” is somewhat of a loaded term. If you have an appetite for good origin stories, you might as well place the birth of the notion with St. Augustine in the fifth century C.E. Pressed to explain to his readers why Rome had been sacked by the Visigoths so shortly after embracing Christianity, Augustine wrote his famous treatise, The City of God. Its full title? De civitate Dei contra paganos, or The City of God Against the Pagans. The latter, he opined elsewhere, had delivered unto mankind nothing but a “hissing cauldron of lusts” that have so spoiled our souls and driven us so far from God that the downfall was imminent. The moral stain of Augustine’s description stuck, and it often colors both our historical vision and the observation that “pagan” describes a dizzying array of peoples and beliefs—from the Slavic tribes who believed that the sky god Perun had beget all other deities that control nature to the Germanic peoples and their complex mythology of giants, dwarves, elves, and dragons, familiar to us from Wagner’s operas.
Leaving permutations and particularities to the pedants, though, it’s quite possible to observe paganism as one sweeping vista and find common themes and threads that haunt us still. Let us begin: Just what do pagans believe?
The answer, while wonderfully complex, may be distilled to the following principle: Nothing is true, everything is permitted. These were the last words, allegedly, of Hasan i-Sabbah—the ninth-century Arab warlord whose group, the Hash’shashin, gave us the English word “assassins.” And his dictum perfectly captures the soul of paganism, illuminated by the idea that no fixed system of belief or set of solid convictions ought to constrain us as we stumble our way through life.
To the pagans, change is the only real constant. Just consider the heathens of old: Believing, as they did, in the radical duality of body and spirit, they enjoyed watching their gods breathe the latter into a wide array of incarnations. To please himself or trick his followers, a god could become a swan or a stone, manifest himself as a river or adopt whatever shape suited his schemes. Ovid, the greatest of Pagan poets, captured this logic perfectly when he began his Metamorphoses with a simple declaration of his intentions: In nova fert animus mutates dicere formas corpora, or, “I am about to speak of forms changing into new entities.” This was not understood as fickle behavior by the gods’ cheerful followers. To the contrary. With no dogma to uphold, the sole job of deities was simply to be themselves. And the more solipsistic a deity chose to be, the better. Nothing, after all, radiates inimitable individuality more than marching to the beat of your own drum and no other.
If that’s your understanding of the gods, or whatever you’d like to call the hidden forces that arrange the known universe, how should you behave? Again, lacking a prescribed credo passed down from generation to generation, pagans began answering this question by casting off the tyranny of fixity. The gods are precarious and ever-changing? Let us follow their example! We should sanctify each sharp transformation in our behaviors and beliefs not as collective madness but as a sign of the wisdom of growth.
Still, change alone does not a belief system make, and pagans, despite differences galore, unite by providing similar answers to three seminal questions: what to do about strangers, how to think about nature, and how to please the gods.
First, the question of difference. What to do with those who are not like us? Easy enough, argued the pagans: Observe any group of humans, no matter how small, and you’ll see it striving to differentiate itself from the group next door. The nomadic Bedouins expressed this idea neatly in an idiom: me and my brothers against our cousins, us and our cousins against our neighbors. Tell children at summer camp that a color war’s afoot, and pretty soon Team Red is likely to develop healthy disdain for Team Blue. Rather than seek to transcend this basic instinct, the pagans sanctified it: It wasn’t for nothing that the Slavs, for example, named their top god Perun, an Indo-European word meaning to strike and splinter, and portrayed him as swinging a mighty axe and engaging in ongoing battles with his fellow divines.
The same spirit, alas, is alive and well among our newest pagans: For them, tribal warfare isn’t just a way of life—it’s a system of divination, with power and privilege waxing and waning to reveal who is pure and worthy and who evil and benighted.
Consider, for example, intersectionality, the academic doctrine that is as close as contemporary paganism gets to a formalized gospel. Its ideas, like most of academia’s excretions these days, aren’t worth studying in any real depth, but the key concept is simple. We each have several components to our identity—sometimes referred to, in the flowery language of assistant professors, as “vectors of oppression and privilege”—and their interplay determines the discrimination we suffer or the violence we may be tempted to wield against others. This means that each introspection is nothing more than an invitation to a fight with those who have more power, real or imagined, than you.
This is what gave Lori Lightfoot, Chicago’s grotesquely inept mayor, the temerity to avoid blaming her recent defeat on, say, the fact that she had called on her city to defund the police, then watched crime soar—with more than 800 murders in 2021 alone, the highest rate in nearly 30 years—and then begged the federal government to help her out of the predictable mess she created. No, she had been defeated for being “a black woman.” For a pagan, tribal identity isn’t the beginning of the conversation; it’s the end, an affiliation beyond which lies nothing but battle for dominance.
Still, merely affirming their own and rejecting others and spending their days trying to decipher who belongs to which group is hardly the sort of theological engine that can power faith for long. Next, then, the pagans turn their lonely eyes toward nature, asking themselves how to understand the creations in their midst. Here, too, a relatively straight forward answer presents itself immediately: If the boundaries between the human world, the natural world, and the divine world aren’t clearly defined—if Zeus, say, can transform himself into a beautiful white bull so that he may rape Princess Europa—then nature should be revered as the repository of divine revelation and rebirth. The Roman historian Tacitus, for example, tells us that the ancient Germanic tribes often worshipped in groves rather than temples. It’s easy to figure out why: Observe the oak in winter, and it stands, barren and leafless, a pillar of death. Visit it some weeks later, when spring is in full bloom, and you see it flourish again. The oak, like the gods, is change embodied, and therefore deserving of worship.
Scan the modern pagan cosmology, and you’ll see much that would have made those ancient Germanic cultists nod in recognition. Consider the eco-protestor who, last year, stormed the court just before Roger Federer’s last career tennis match and set his own arms on fire to protest climate change. Or the Brit who, shortly thereafter, poured human feces on a statue to call attention to environmental causes. Or the lunatics from Just Stop Oil, a radical environmentalist group, who slung soup on Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. Just like the Scandinavian pagans who offered precious gifts to appease the Askafroa, the spirit of the Ash Tree, a vengeful entity that demanded sacrifice lest it wreak havoc, many of today’s green activists seem much more intent on appeasing an angry god than solving a scientific conundrum. And the scientists themselves aren’t helping much either: In 2018, for example, one prominent Columbia University climate scientist took to Scientific American to write that she refuses to debate…climate science. “Once you put established facts about the world up for argument, you’ve already lost,” she wrote, capturing the opposite, more or less, of the scientific method, which is little more than a constant and unfettered argument about established facts, new evidence, and the possible correlations or contradictions therein.
But if pagans have always found the questions of how to treat others and how to live in nature relatively uncomplicated, the third question—that of how to please the gods—is infinitely more shaded. What do the gods want? Study pagan mythologies and you’ll emerge none the wiser, in part because the gods, like their human worshippers, seem to consist of little more than appetites and caprices. But while they may not be understood, they have to be appeased—and this left classical pagans with a question of a more practical order, namely what might they possess that the all-powerful deities could possibly want.
Gold, silver, and other dear things were frequently the answer, but rarely exclusively: Being the creators of the natural world, after all, the gods could hardly care that much about things that they can easily forge themselves, ex nihilo, by virtue of their divine will. And so the pagans scanned the horizon for something truly precious and exquisite, something whose sacrifice would be an unmistakable sign of devotion. And, across time and across cultures, they alighted on exactly the same thing: kids.
At once the embodiment of innocence and the object of our deepest and most sincere emotions, children, the most vulnerable of mortals, were the ultimate offering to the gods—proof that the pagan believer was so certain in his belief that he would offer up his own offspring to show the gods the strength of his faith, appeasing them and avoiding potential punishment. So prevalent among the heathens of antiquity was the practice of child sacrifice that the Torah issued a strongly worded prohibition against it, in Leviticus 18:21: “Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molek.”
Child sacrifice, alas, is alive and well in America these days, too. We may not, like the Vikings, toss our young into wells as offerings to the heavens, but turn over every rock in our craggy contemporary political landscape and you’ll find some pagan policy offering up the well-being of children to the gods of virtue. In March 2020, to choose one stinging example, Sweden bucked the global trend and responded to Covid-19 by keeping schools open. The results of this experiment were available shortly thereafter: Zero dead kids, almost zero kids sick, and very little, if any, risk to teachers. By January 2021, a study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention affirmed that Covid rates in schools that had reopened were 37 percent lower than the rates in the same communities at large. The Biden administration largely ignored this evidence; it took some liberal cities such as New York a full 18 months to reopen their schools.
The results: dramatic upticks in juvenile mental-health crises, sharp declines in basic academic proficiency and just about every other metric of human misery visited on our children. A rational society, to say nothing about one guided by traditional values, would have curbed this suffering long before it blossomed so terribly; the pagans instead composed a fanciful narrative of what constitutes righteous behavior and then forced it on their children, whose pain was then explained away as a necessary evil if one wanted the forces of science to vanquish the darkness and cleanse the soul. When Anthony Fauci said, “I am the science,” he couldn’t have sounded more like the mighty Perun had he worn a cape and a crown.
Maybe you’re a kinder person than I, one more inclined than I am to give fellow human beings the benefit of the doubt. Pandemics are stressful times, and even the most well-meaning public health officials may be forgiven their missteps when the entire world is crackling. No sooner had the wrath of Covid subsided, though, than our pagan witch doctors jumped in with another way to sacrifice the well-being of the young on the altar of ideological convictions. According to a recent Reuters report, for example, 15,172 Americans ages six to 17 were diagnosed with gender dysphoria in 2017; by 2021, that number nearly tripled. How to explain this stratospheric rise? Have doctors gotten better at detecting this particular medical condition? Has the science simply improved?
A 2018 study by Lisa Littman, assistant professor of behavioral sciences at Brown, addressed this very question. Teens, Dr. Littman concluded after studying 256 subjects, were highly susceptible to what she called “rapid-onset gender dysphoria.” When spending time, particularly online, with groups of people who favorably discussed the idea of being transgender, teens were much more likely to become gender dysphoric, a phenomenon Dr. Littman described as “peer contagion.”
The paper was accepted by PLOS One, a peer-reviewed scientific journal, but after transgender activists protested, the article was removed, and a Brown dean explained that censorship had been necessary because Dr. Littman’s findings “invalidate the perspectives” of the transgender community. Meanwhile, the Reuters report also confirmed that the past four years have seen a doubling of the rates of both hormone therapy and puberty blockers prescribed to teens. This uptick, coupled with school policies that now actively seek to exclude parents from conversations about their child’s gender identity, has led lawmakers in 27 states to draft 100 bills to halt so-called gender-reaffirming care.
Meanwhile, the intellectual-industrial complex continues to push its pagan convictions. The University of Pennsylvania recently announced an anonymous $2 million gift that would allow it to hire Alok Vaid-Menon, a self-identified “non-binary transfeminine person,” as a scholar in residence. Vaid-Menon is the author of Beyond the Gender Binary, a children’s book encouraging young readers to understand that “man” and “woman” are but two of an infinity of gender-related options.
But it’s not merely the hotly debated issues in the center of our cultural skirmishes that point to the pagan propensity for child sacrifice; it’s the pagan style of politics itself. A study published in 2022 and led by Columbia epidemiologist Dr. Catherine Gimbrone examined the longitudinal data collected by the Monitoring the Future project, which asks high-school students a wide array of questions about attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. Dr. Gimbrone’s findings were alarming: Before 2012, there had been no differences between boys and girls, and none between self-identified conservatives and liberals, when it came to mental health. Then, depression scores began to soar for liberal girls and rise considerably for liberal boys. Conservative children registered a far less significant spike. Put crudely, the obsessive and relentless pagan emphasis on gender, ideology, and other divisions was literally driving kids crazy.
Writing about the roles schools played in destabilizing the mental well-being of children, NYU psychologist Jonathan Haidt and journalist Greg Lukianoff argued that our academic institutions were practicing “reverse CBT.” While Cognitive Behavioral Therapy teaches its adherents to catch catastrophic thoughts before they turn into full-fledged panics, schools were now teaching children to see the world in black and white, perceive opposing viewpoints as harmful, and surrender to their worst fears.
What, then, are we to do when confronted with so much lunacy? Three urgent steps come to mind.
First, let us realize that all of the above-mentioned permutations are far from random. They’re not aberrations to be gawked at separately. They’re part of a cohesive belief system, paganism, that is gripping those who have rejected monotheistic ethics and mores. This recognition is particularly important because the pagans themselves vehemently deny it. They print stickers with slogans like “believe the science,” not realizing that they have just admitted, however tacitly, that theirs isn’t a logical and rational product of the Enlightenment but a religious system like any other, complete with its quirks and its zealotry. Only when it is understood as such can it be confronted; only if we deny the pagans the right to don a white lab coat or a tie and claim impartiality can we provide a sober accounting of their actions.
Second, we must understand that the good, old-fashioned faith traditions that the pagans so often reject as oppressive, patriarchal, racist, misogynistic, or any number of other trendy terms have seen it all before. Judaism has been facing down pagans for millennia now and answering each of their deathly dicta with sound, humanistic alternatives. Here’s a taste: We were all, the Bible tells us, created in God’s image, and even though God elected one people to preserve and protect his Torah, the arc of history bends toward togetherness. God’s house, Isaiah wisely reports, “shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.” In other words, while people are different, and while their differences are meaningful and instrumental in shaping their unique experiences, they also form the bridge that could one day lead to a common house of prayer. The biblical story begins and ends with a universalist message; its meaty middle, the story of the chosen people and their travails, is a crucial reminder that cultivating our own tribal beliefs and rituals is, ultimately, an exercise in self-awareness without which we can never truly empathize with anyone anywhere. Know thyself so you may know others—as credos go, this one is unimprovable and so much more compassionate than the pagan call for perpetual warfare.
Which leads us to step three, the most urgent yet most difficult one: Save your children by shielding them from an ideology that perpetually seeks ways to harm them; root them instead in traditions that nurture them and give them dignity, hope, and a future. At the very least, this means refusing to enlist your children in political crusades, no matter how just they may appear. Resist hagiographical books about activists and rabble-rousers. Realize that taking your kids to a march or a demonstration doesn’t make them better citizens—as if civic duty can be learned by osmosis—but merely ladens them with the anxiety of ideology, a burden no child should ever have to bear. If you can, rescue them from pagan schools as well, or, at least, teach them that there are better options.
When pagans waving the banner of diversity, equity, and inclusion insist that we judge others by the color of their skin, not the content of their character, tell your children that the Hebrew prophets offered a much more transformational vision of racial justice, one that inspired everyone from Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King Jr. When pagans calling themselves environmentalists tell your children to worship the earth, introduce them to the Talmud for a superior attitude that is as mindful of production as it is of conservation. When pagans quarrel and cancel, teach your children the value of building real communities, and of the tried-and-true blueprints for real human happiness given to us by our faith traditions.
If we do that, we may very well discover that history, God bless, always repeats itself: The heathens ululate and then fold, subdued by the demonstrable advantages of better faith traditions. We’re long overdue for another cycle of pagan defeat; let’s do our best to bring it on soonest.