The Return of the Pagans

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Written By Pinang Driod

Take a close look at Donald Trump—the lavishness of his homes, the buildings emblazoned with his name and adorned with gold accoutrements, his insistent ego, even the degree of obeisance he evokes among his followers—and, despite the fervent support he receives from many evangelical Christians, it’s hard to avoid concluding that there’s something a little pagan about the man. Or consider Elon Musk. With his drive to conquer space to expand the human empire, his flirtation with anti-Semitic tropes, his 10 children with three different women, Musk embodies the wealth worship and ideological imperialism of ego that are more than a little pagan too.

Most ancient pagan belief systems were built around ritual and magic, coercive practices intended to achieve a beneficial result. They centered the self. The revolutionary contribution of monotheism was its insistence that the principal concern of God is, instead, how people treat one another.

Although paganism is one of those catchall words applied to widely disparate views, the worship of natural forces generally takes two forms: the deification of nature, and the deification of force. In the modern world, each ideological wing has claimed a piece of paganism as its own. On the left, there are the world-worshippers, who elevate nature to the summit of sanctity. On the right, you see the worship of force in the forms of wealth, political power, and tribal solidarity. In other words, the paganism of the left is a kind of pantheism, and the paganism of the right is a kind of idolatry. Hug a tree or a dollar bill, and the pagan in you shines through.

The two may be tied together. We used to believe that human beings stood at the summit of creation. A lot has since conspired to make us feel less important: an appreciation of the vastness of the cosmos, the reality that we are motivated by evolutionary pressures we barely understand, psychology’s proof of the murkiness inside our own psyche, even the failures of Promethean technology. (Yes, we have smartphones, but we also have a climate crisis; it’s slender comfort that the bad news is now instantaneously available.) As we slide down the slope of significance, we may undertake to prove how potent we are.

Shortly before the Second World War, the historian Arnold J. Toynbee described communism and fascism each as a form of idolatry that “worships the creature instead of worshipping the creator.” If we don’t have a God to simultaneously assure us of our centrality and our smallness, we will exaggerate both. Rabbi Simcha Bunim, a Hasidic master of the 18th and 19th centuries, used to advise his disciples to carry two pieces of paper, one in each pocket. In one pocket was the phrase “For me the world was created.” In the other, “I am but dust and ashes.” In the balance between the two lies the genuine status of the human being.

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The current worship of wealth is a pagan excrescence. I am spending this year at Harvard, and it is not easy to find an undergraduate who isn’t interested in “finance.” The poets want to go into finance. The history students are studying investment. For a long time in the United States, the accumulation of capital was teleological: Wealth was a means of improving society, of creating something greater than oneself. The current ideology of wealth is solipsistic: I should become wealthy because I should become wealthy. Gone is the New Testament admonition that it is harder for a rich man to enter heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. On campus, a lot of students are now threading that needle.

Wealth is a cover for, or a means to, the ultimate object of worship in a pagan society, which is power. “Life simply is the will to power,” the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, in the manner of a billionaire tech bro. That’s probably truer to Google’s corporate ethos than “Don’t be evil.” The reshaping of politics as a pure contest unconstrained by truth or mutuality, a feature of our political landscape, is both Nietzschean and pagan. The use and abuse of Nietzsche’s work by the Nazis was only to be expected.

Nietzsche criticized Judaism and Christianity for what he saw as their valorization of weakness, which he despised. The Greeks taught that the rich and powerful and beautiful were favored by the gods. Then along came Judaism, and after it, Christianity, arguing that widows and orphans and the poor were beloved of God. This was Judaism’s “spiritual revenge,” Nietzsche argued, which spread through the world on Christian wings. The Nazis, in championing blond, blue-eyed Aryan Übermenschen—a term they took from Nietzsche—were reinvigorating a pagan ideal.

This worship of the body—of beauty, which is another form of power—is a pagan inheritance. The monotheistic faiths did not disdain beauty, but it was not an ideal they extolled. Not only do biblical heroes rarely merit a physical description, but even traditionally heroic attributes are portrayed as worthless if they lack a spiritual foundation. In the Bible, if someone is physically imposing, that usually signals trouble. Samson is a boor who redeems himself at the last minute. Saul stands a head above the crowd, but is an utter failure as king. The English critic Matthew Arnold famously said that the Greeks believed in the holiness of beauty, and the Hebrews believed in the beauty of holiness.

The veneration of physical beauty, the Instagramization of culture, is pagan to its roots. The overwhelming cascade of drugs, surgeries, and procedures intended to enhance one’s physical appearance—all precursors to “designer babies”—is a tribute to the externalization of our values. Movements of hypermasculinity, championed figures such as the now-indicted Andrew Tate, flow from the elevation of the human body to idolatrous status.

It is not enough to look good for a while; we have to look good forever. Attempts by some billionaires to become immortal, and the conceit that we should never die, are born of a conviction that we can transcend our finitude, that we can become as gods. Other billionaires make forays into space, or dream of conquering other worlds. Although this is sold as utilitarian—we are using up the resources of the planet on which we are planted—this is not a public-works project, but a Promethean one.

The virtue that falls furthest in the pagan pantheon of traits is humility. In the ancient Greek epics, humility is not even reckoned a virtue. Edward Gibbon, in his monumental history of the Roman empire, assigned Christianity a large role in its fall: “The clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and pusillanimity; the active virtues of society were discouraged; and the last remains of military spirit were buried in the cloister: a large portion of public and private wealth was consecrated to the specious demands of charity and devotion; and the soldiers’ pay was lavished on the useless multitudes of both sexes who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity.”

Wealth, power, beauty, and lust for domination made Rome into Rome, in Gibbon’s account. Humility, sexual restraint, patience, and tolerance sapped the brio of a once-great empire, and it fell to the barbarians, unbridled by the strictures of monotheistic faith. What we might call the religious virtues, according to Gibbon and his ideological successors, made defending society impossible.

You can see the same worship of power over heroic endurance and restraint today on the political right. “I like people who aren’t captured,” Trump infamously said about John McCain. Consider how Trump reframes heroism, making it not about bravery, but about success. And the idolatrous slant is also visible in the symbology of the far right. January 6 made Jacob Chansley, the “QAnon Shaman,” with his bare chest and Norse headdress, instantly notorious. Norse and Viking mythology have played a large role in the far right, just as they did for the Nazis. The Norse were people of conquest, rape, and pillage, at least in the popular imagination. That the right, which has long marched under the banner of Christian values, is beginning to embrace pagan symbols ought to be deeply troubling.

But modern paganism is hardly confined to the political right. The left-wing movement to demote the status of human beings displays a complementary form of paganism. In The Case Against Human Superiority, the Harvard philosopher Christine M. Korsgaard argues that because no standard is common to humans and animals, we cannot sustain a moral hierarchy. In other words, because wildebeests don’t read Kant, we cannot hold them to the categorical imperative. Korsgaard doubts whether one can say that the death of a human being is really worse than the death of, say, an aardvark. Such arguments go back to Peter Singer, whose Animal Liberation was a landmark in the field. Interviewed almost 50 years after the book was published, Singer told The Guardian, “Just as we accept that race or sex isn’t a reason for a person counting more, I don’t think the species of a being is a reason for counting more than another being.”

For those who believe that the pagan outlook has no consequences, Singer illustrated the radical difference between believing that human beings are created in the image of God and believing that they are animals like other animals. In the same interview, after saying that a child on a respirator should perhaps be allowed to die, Singer said, “And I think, even in cases where the child doesn’t need a respirator, parents should be able to consult doctors to reach a considered judgment, including that the child’s life is not one that is going to be a benefit for the child or for their family, and that therefore it is better to end the child’s life.” After all, we shoot horses to put them out of their suffering. If we are all animals, why morally elevate an infant over a horse?

* * *

The monotheistic faiths are not without their own failings. Their critics note the manifold cruelties that have been perpetrated in their name. No one who looks at the history of any faith can have illusions about the ability of believers to prosecute the most horrendous atrocities. As a Jew, I am not likely to overlook the cruelties of religious people to one another throughout the centuries.

The question, however, is not whether beliefs can lead us astray, as they all can, but what sorts of beliefs are most likely to lend themselves to respect for human life and flourishing. Should we see human beings as virtual supermen, free to flout any convention, to pursue power at any cost, to accumulate wealth without regard for consequence or its use? Are gold toilets and private rocket ships our final statement of significance? Or is it a system of belief that considers human beings all synapse and no soul, an outgrowth of the animal world and in no way able to rise above the evolutionary mosaic of which everything from the salmon to sage is a piece?

Monotheism, at its best, acknowledges genuine humility about our inability to know what God is and what God wishes, but asserts that although human beings are elevated above the shackles of nature, we are still subordinate to something greater than ourselves.

If we are nothing but animals, the laws of the jungle inevitably apply. If we are all pugilists attacking one another in a scramble to climb to the top of the pole, the laws of the jungle still apply. But if we are all children of the same God, all kin, all convinced that there is a spark of eternity in each person but that none of us is superhuman, then maybe we can return to being human.

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