We, in the West, find ourselves in a time of spiritual uncertainty and confusion. Undoubtedly, this is because we have gone through at least two major religious stages and have been exiting out of religion altogether for some time. Christianity began to slowly replace the “pagan,” “heathen,” or “polytheistic” religions of Europe roughly around one thousand years ago. It took over many of the sacred sites and festival dates of the former religions, Christianizing the pagans and, in effect, being paganized by them.
As Christianity has declined, especially over the last century, paganism has made a modest comeback. And, in regard to “new paganism” or the return or the romanticization of pre-Christian religious expression in modernity, the Catholic author G. K. Chesterton had this to say:
All that genuinely remains of the ancient hymns or the ancient dances of Europe, all that has honestly come to us from the festivals of Phoebus or Pan, is to be found in the festivals of the Christian Church. If any one wants to hold the end of a chain which really goes back to the heathen mysteries, he had better take hold of a festoon of flowers at Easter or a string of sausages at Christmas. Everything else in the modern world is of Christian origin, even everything that seems most anti-Christian.G. K. Chesterton, Heretics, Ch. 12: Paganism and Mr. Lowes Dickinson.
For Chesterton, the French Revolution was Christian, and so was anarchism and the newspaper. And, certainly, we have kept many of the values of Christianity (a belief in helping the weak and a belief in equality — the latter of which, especially, doesn’t make much sense to Hinduism, with its caste system, or to Buddhism (which is concerned with the individual’s potential for awakening), and nor did it make much sense to pre-Christian European religions).
But, while we have kept many of the values of Christianity, dragging them out of the personal, spiritual realm and thrusting them into the realm of mass politics, the West has increasingly lost a path to the sacred. Indeed, while — for the moment — America remains far more religious, and far more spiritual, than Great Britain, for example, the seasonal celebrations (Thanksgiving and Christmas in particular) are partially overshadowed by shopping (i.e., the Black Friday and Boxing Day sales) as well as the shortness of the holiday (one or two days instead of the typical British week or so off at Christmas).
From Ancient Superstition To Neopaganism
Of course, Britain, like other European countries, still has much pre-modern architecture and structures — not only Stone Henge (and all the other, lesser-known henges and stone circles) but castles and stately homes, many of which are accessible. Some superstitions and practices from the pre-Christian era still remain, along with myths and legends. It is possible to see morris dancing with a very authentically pagan feel, to see the green man on churches and pub signs, to visit the raven in the Tower of London (many of whom have been named after pagan gods, such as Thor and Odin), to travel along Roman roads, or to visit the Mithraeum in the heart of London.
And while the sophisticated American feels a sense of superiority at dismissing his or her country as cultureless, there we can find everything from the great serpent mound of Ohio and Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings to cathedrals, neoclassical architecture and Egyptian obelisks, rural Masonic lodges and other fraternal buildings, and such cultural centers as the Nicholas Roerich Museum (in the heart of New York City). The U.S.A. has also given birth to an extraordinary range of religions, from Mormonism to the Nation of Islam and from Christian Science to Moorish Science. It has been at the forefront of the revival of the pagan religion of Asatru and is the home to the Rune Gild. And it is home to various esoteric societies such as the Rosicrucian Fellowship, B.O.T.A., and A.M.O.R.C.
But what eludes the average individual is a belief in the sacred, and a sense of connection to the gods and goddesses — or to God — and a spiritual practice that has been passed down through the family line and that gives them a connection to who they are or where they are. Only 14% of Britons say they are members of the Church of England (once the default religion of England), while over 50% of the population says they have no religion.
Neopaganism is sometimes touted as “the fastest-growing religion” in Great Britain, but it is also probably the smallest, with a mere 50,000 to 200,000 estimated neopagans in the country, which has roughly 65 million inhabitants. But neopaganism would, undoubtedly, need to be further broken down into Wicca (and its main branches, Gardnerian and Alexandrian), Druidry, Heathenism, Asatru, neo-shamanism, and so on, since their beliefs are not the same, and some of these groups do not get along (especially politically).
Buddhism — or what Slavoj Zizek would call “Western Buddhism” — has appealed to the upper middle-classes but it has failed to reach the masses and its significance, culturally, has noticeably waned over the last two decades. And with Islam constantly in the spotlight in Western countries, for the first decade or so of this century, it saw a steep rise in converts — most of them women — but the faith “gains about as many converts as it loses.”
Neopaganism, Christianity, and most other religions face the same problem when it comes to mass appeal: belief. An individual might have a belief in “God,” fate, or “karma,” but believing in a specific religious conception of God, or in a specific god or goddess linked to a particular culture, and specific practices, can require too large a leap of faith.
Moreover, the religions are often plagued by literalism and politics (and can sometimes appear like political organizations with rituals), while neopaganism suffers, additionally, from LARPing.
Nihilism, Conversion, Or Some Other Way?
The consequences of the absence of the transcendent (or even of personal aspiration and vision) are clear to see. Drunkenness, strange ideologies that contradict nature, addiction to politics and “the news” (with issues that emerge into the collective consciousness, demand absolute obedience, and are then forgotten as if they never happened), excessive consumption, and the unwillingness of individuals to try to improve — mind, body, and spirit — are all on display on a daily basis. Indeed, it can seem that if the West has a religion it is dogged devotion to avoiding facing the truth.
I have spoken about Britain and the U.S.A. since I have lived in both of these countries and am familiar with their cultures. But it would seem that the situation is the same in most Western countries. As such, the increasing number of people not born into a religion face a choice: Convert to Christianity, despite its decline in society (even in the U.S.A.). Convert to one of the neopagan faiths. Convert to a traditionally non-Western religion, such as Hinduism or Islam (Rene Guenon did). Or embrace atheism and nihilism.
The West created nihilism — the negative of faith. But, for the “Westerner,” the negative has always had a special role in his psyche (or in the collective psyche). He has believed in the inevitability of Ragnarok (the battle in which the worlds, and the gods and their enemies, will be destroyed), has prayed to icons of Jesus on the cross — at the moment of death and of transcending death — and has conceived of God as something beyond human comprehension. Again, philosopher Georg Hegel spoke of the “negative of the negative” in his philosophy, which has been encapsulated by Jean Luc Nancy, in the title of his book on Hegel (but which reflects part of the Western psyche that we do not want to acknowledge), as “the restlessness of the negative.”
And the Westerner has always been willing to go out physically into the world of negation: the dark forest, the desolate north or the south pole, the ocean, or the moon. And he has been prepared to go into the negative spiritually, philosophically, mystically, and imaginatively. Indeed, it is no coincidence that as collective religious belief waned science fiction was invented and became a repository for myths and archetypes — the original Star Wars movies (influenced by the writings of mythologist Joseph Campbell) and Dune (influenced by Islam) being only the most notable.
A Way Forward
Undoubtedly, many will find their home in Christianity or neopaganism, or will convert to another religion. But there will be those who feel called to the spiritual tundra, and who feel compelled to push through it and beyond it. Such an adventure requires tools — a compass and a map, even if we will go off the map. Here are my suggestions for what we need for this journey:
Our compass — (1) respect for different traditions (Christianity and paganism, Hinduism and Islam, for example). (2) Respect for their intellectual culture and material culture, and, as such, for their greatest thinkers and artists. (3) Respect for intelligence, creativity, and beauty. (4) Respect for the mind, body, and spirit.
Our map — the shared themes and insights of the religions, spiritual and esoteric traditions, myths, ancient texts, and philosophical works.
Our food rations — the wisdom, insights, rituals, practices, and aesthetics that we find. As such, we must learn to discern not so much between this fruit-bearing tree and that one but between what fruit is ripe and what fruit lies rotting on the ground. We must be careful not to dismiss the insights of the mystic because of the ravings of the lunatic fundamentalist.
Our team — those who distinguish between religious contemplative and the religious literalist, and who see themselves as allied to the former, regardless of which faith they belong to (or, to put it another way, those who want to align themselves to quality, not mere quantity).
Our direction — Developing the mind, body, and spirit. Aiming to be better today than we were yesterday. Fixing our own faults and weaknesses rather than worrying about those of other people.
Our north star — the search for Truth, for the sacred, for the Divine, and for our own True or Higher Self.