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Pagan America:
The Decline of Christianity and the Dark Age to Come

by john daniel davidson
regnery, 256 pages, $29.99

In December 2023, Michael Cassidy, a Navy veteran and devout Christian, encountered an obscene statue of Baphomet erected by the Satanic Temple inside the Iowa Statehouse. He tore it down. For this act of what he described as spontaneous “Christian civil disobedience,” he was quickly charged with committing a felony hate crime.

It’s notable that he was charged with anything at all. When a wave of mass iconoclasm swept the United States in 2020, with hundreds of monuments honoring civil and religious figures from Thomas Jefferson to St. Junípero Serra destroyed by mobs of “social justice” activists, many of whom filmed themselves in the act, few incidents were investigated, let alone prosecuted. In the rare instances in which someone has since been charged—for instance, the case of Maeve Nota, a trans-identifying man who vandalized a church with anti-Catholic graffiti, attacked a statue of the Virgin Mary, and assaulted a church employee—the Department of Justice has intervened to offer sweetheart plea agreements with no jail time. No such leniency has been granted in Cassidy’s case.

This discrepancy should not surprise us; it is a sign of the times. As John Daniel Davidson compellingly argues in Pagan America, the nature of the American state has fundamentally changed. After decades of decline and retreat, Christianity is no longer a dominant force in American society but the faith of an increasingly marginalized minority. The civilizational consequences of crossing this momentous but largely unrecognized tipping point have only just begun to materialize.

Even as adherence to orthodox Christian belief waned and a secular liberal culture became the default mode of life in the West, religious moral assumptions long continued to be considered axiomatic. Some even regarded them as universally inherent to humanity, a framework on which a progressively more atheistic culture would construct an ever more peaceful, just, and enlightened society. But this is not what happened. Instead, like Wile E. Coyote, we made it past the edge of the cliff only to witness the return of moral gravity. Instead of a humanistic atheism, Davidson argues, something different—something ancient—filled the void left by Christianity. Paganism has made a comeback.

This doesn’t mean that kids have started making sacrifices to Zeus and Thor (though interest in Wicca and other modern forms of playacting at witchcraft has surged, especially among young women). Rather, as Louise Perry has explained in these pages (“We Are Repaganizing,” October 2023), paganism is better thought of as mankind’s default outlook on the world. The pagan worships the immanent, including worldly gods and worldly things, and so what he ultimately comes to worship above all else is power: power in the world and over it. In Perry’s words: “To put it crudely, most cultures look at the powerful and the wealthy and assume that they must be doing something right to have attained such might. The poor are poor because of some failing of their own, whether in this life or the last.” It was Christianity’s “topsy-turvy attitude toward weakness and strength” that made it so revolutionary—and so anthropologically odd. So now, as societies revert to the pagan mean, moral beliefs we mistakenly thought were unshakably foundational, such as that every person possesses inherent human dignity, or that unwanted babies shouldn’t be abandoned to die, are being upended in favor of the old ways. Thus we end up with growing public support in the West for policies such as state-facilitated euthanasia.

Davidson’s most important contribution in Pagan America is to explain how repaganization can be expected to change the character of the American state, alongside society more broadly. Until now, America has been governed largely by the tenets of political liberalism. But as Davidson points out, liberalism always relied on “a source of vitality that does not originate from it and that it cannot replenish”: the Christian faith. And as the nation repaganizes, “we will revert to an older form of civilization, one in which power alone matters and the weak and the vulnerable count for nothing”—neither in spirit nor in law. “As Christianity fades in America,” Davidson warns, “so too will our system of government, our civil society, and all our rights and freedoms.” The state will no longer allow the principle of individual rights or conscience to override its desires, and it will not hesitate to use force to get its way, even if that means violating previously sacred norms by, say, threatening to break up the families of those who refuse to submit.

The pagan state, on this view, will not pretend to maintain any sort of liberal neutrality. Instead, Davidson argues, “We will have a public or state morality, just as Rome had, which will be quite separate from whatever religion one happens to profess.” What will this state morality consist of? Davidson believes we can already see it being instantiated everywhere: a solipsistic focus on self-expression, self-empowerment, and pride; a radical emphasis of unabridged individual autonomy and liberation from all customs, taboos, and constraints, including all duties and relational ties; an extreme aversion to boundaries and limits on desire, and the self-creation not only of all aspects of personal identity, but of the body, nature, and reality itself; and ultimately an undiluted worship of the self and the will to power, hidden behind a mask of empathy, tolerance, and the language of the therapeutic. Under this regime the strictest of commandments will be that it is forbidden to forbid anything.

Davidson observes that this state-enforced morality reflects the occultist Aleister Crowley’s old dictum, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.” As Mary Harrington has put it elsewhere, it is becoming hard to resist “the startling conclusion that post-Christian America is an increasingly Satanist regime.”

Davidson predicts that life under this regime will be characterized by oppression and coercive violence, and that this “violence will be official—carried out by government bureaucrats, police, health care workers, NGOs, public schools, and Big Tech.” Those who refuse to render the expected moral sacrifices to Caesar are likely to come under intense pressure to conform, hounded not only by the state but by all the aligned institutions of American society. They can expect life to become very difficult: their bank accounts closed, their ability to travel restricted, their access to education and employment limited. The threat of arrest and prosecution for “extremism” and other vague crimes will loom constantly. Such an environment of totalitarian coercion should be expected because, in addition to delineating loyalty, the doctrines of official ideologies always serve as a means of coordination and mobilization across the disparate elements of a regime. By permeating every level of the many institutions of the American managerial apparatus and determining the thoughts and behavior of their members, from journalists to judges, the new pagan public morality will become integral to the function of the system as a whole. In other words, we will live under a pagan integralist state.

Davidson, for his part, does not shy away from accepting the inevitability of this future. “America as we know it will come to an end,” he writes. “Instead of free citizens in a republic, we will be slaves in a pagan empire.” Only the wealthy and powerful will do what they will, while the rest suffer what they must. “What awaits us on the other side of Christendom,” he declares, “is a pagan dark age.” And “in the second decade of the twenty-first century,” he writes, “we can say with some confidence that this dark age has begun.”

It is for me always a bit of an odd experience to read someone who is even more pessimistic than I am. I get an eerie tingling sensation, an unwelcome and unsettling suspicion that things aren’t as bad as all that. In this case something nagged at me as I reread Davidson’s thesis. Something seemed not quite right . . . Ah, there it was: “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” This is the slogan he repeats many times throughout the book to encapsulate the core proposition of paganism, ancient and modern.

This, it strikes me, is wrong. The pagan of the ancient world may have held a moral worldview alien to ours, but he was no nihilist. Quite the opposite. For the pagan, immanence was indeed his lived reality. And that meant that everything around him—every tree, every blade of grass, every gust of wind—was suffused with spirit and enchanted with meaning and symbol. Everything had soul. The divine was alive and present all around him, for good or ill. Every swooping hawk and every moving star could be an omen of fear or favor, a story revealing a glimpse into the workings of fate and the drama of the gods. Everything might be true, anything was possible.

But not everything was permitted. The world for the pagan—as it remains for many tribal peoples today—was rife with taboos and solemn duties. Guests must be protected and treated with complete sanctity under a strict code of propriety, lest one attract the wrath of the gods. Sacred ground must be maintained in absolute purity. The best sacrifices must be offered to honor and placate the ancestral dead, or to ensure the continued right working of the universe. The flame of the sacred hearth must be tended at all times, the proper rites continuously performed. A Roman wife must be carried across the threshold of her new household with great care that she never touch the boundary, for her transit was not only between families but across divine realms.

Our dim and pallid modernist world could not be more different from the pagan’s. Here all has been reduced to mere matter, moved about by the collision of atoms. There is no meaning in the wind. There are no spirits in the trees nor stories in the stars. We can no longer see them. Nor for most of us does God seem, as the early Christians felt deeply, to permeate each breath and every stone of creation with his energy, present at once in all things and beyond all things. Ours is a profane, mechanistic world—a dead world, in which the vast majority of us have, perhaps literally, lost the ability to perceive that it is still alive. Instead, in our drab materialism, most of us live in a kind of self-imposed virtual reality, obsessed with predictability and technocratic control.

Only in such a meaningless world can the proposition “nothing is true, everything is permitted” make any sense to its inhabitants. It is not, then, the slogan of paganism, but something else entirely: the worldview of materialist modernity, produced by the centuries of metaphysical drift that first pushed God out of the world and then pushed the Western mind deeper and deeper into cold rationalism—and from thence into the great disenchantment of the Enlightenment, then on to the unprecedented murderousness of the twentieth century’s utopian revolutionary theories, then the bleak relativistic nihilism of the present. Though Davidson does include a chapter on the rise of materialism, overall his book glosses over this nearly thousand-year devolution. Instead the narrative largely reverts to a simple binary: There was a pagan world; Christianity triumphed over it but never dealt it a mortal blow; now we are sliding from Christendom back into paganism.

Is this really what is happening? C. S. Lewis, for one, was always skeptical of such claims. He wrote that he found it “hard to have patience with those . . . who warn us that we are ‘relapsing into Paganism.’” The whole notion relied, he said, on the “false idea” that secularized former Christians could return “by the same door” through which they’d entered the present. In reality, this is impossible because to a post-Christian materialist the pagan world of symbol and spirit remains wholly unintelligible. “A post-Christian man is not a Pagan; you might as well think that a married woman recovers her virginity by divorce. The post-Christian is cut off from the Christian past and therefore doubly from the Pagan past.” In fact, he pointed out, “Christians and Pagans had much more in common with each other than either has with a post-Christian. The gap between those who worship different gods is not so wide as that between those who worship and those who do not.”

So who is right? Are we repaganizing or not? Perhaps both are right, in a way. Lewis is probably correct that what we’ve seen so far can’t quite be described as a straightforward return to paganism. But something is now happening: Amid our broader civilizational turmoil, the zeitgeist does seem to be shifting dramatically, shaking off the remnants of tepid, Christian-influenced secular liberalism in favor of something new, inchoate, and potentially very dark. So far it is not Christian. But—and this is I believe by far the more important point—neither is it the soulless materialism that Lewis feared had already conquered the world, severing us from the past and from the divine. 

What we seem to be seeing is a broad and accelerating reaction against and rejection of the materialist framework of Enlightenment modernity. It is now observable throughout Western culture and politics. The young would-be feminists flocking to “WitchTok” for advice on how to conjure love and manifest success are hardly atheists. Neither are the young men of the right who, if not crowding back into traditionalist churches, grope for a spirituality of strength, vitality, and meaning among the aesthetic ruins of ancient warrior cults. These are people searching for the sacred, even if they don’t know where to look. In fact, sometime during the last decade, the atheist movement seems to have quietly died off as a cultural force.

What is happening? Citing a recent wave of religious conversions by formerly atheistic public intellectuals, Jordan Peterson has argued that we are experiencing the beginning of a “Counter-Enlightenment.” The centuries-old Enlightenment consensus, including the idea that the materialist-rationalists’ “dead facts” could serve as a guide to existence, has, he believes, turned out to be badly wrong, and now an epochal reckoning is building. (As for his own contribution, Peterson said he’s now writing a book that aims—he remarks offhandedlyto “demolish the atheistic argument permanently.”) I think he is right: The whole edifice of modernity is in crisis. But this should be a cause for Christian hope, not panic. In fact, it seems possible that our time may witness a transition not into Davidson’s new “pagan dark age,” but out of what Lewis called the true dark age of modern materialism.

More than a hundred years before Peterson, the German historian Oswald Spengler predicted that, beginning sometime in the twenty-first century, “a last spiritual crisis” would shake a declining West and lead to a resurgence of religiosity, a long era of renewed piety that he dubbed a “Second Religiousness.” Spengler based this prediction on his reading of the life cycles of many major civilizations, all of which had, in his telling, been brought low by an “age of theory,” in which a hubris of materialist rationalism crystallized into self-induced mechanistic madness, decadence, and civilizational decay. In time, however, this epoch always came to an end, as “the possibilities of physics as a critical mode of world-understanding are exhausted, and the hunger for metaphysics presents itself afresh.”

“For us, too,” writes Spengler, “let there be no mistake about it—the age of theory is drawing to its end. . . . In its place is developing even now the seed of a new resigned piety, sprung from tortured conscience and spiritual hunger.” But first civilization would be swept, as in every historical case, by a temporary period of bizarre superstitions and syncretic cults:

Everywhere it is just a toying with myths that no one really believes, a tasting of cults that it is hoped might fill the inner void. The real belief is always the belief in atoms and numbers, but it requires this highbrow hocus-pocus to make it bearable in the long run. Materialism is shallow and honest, mock-religion shallow and dishonest. But the fact that the latter is possible at all foreshadows a new and genuine spirit of seeking that declares itself, first quietly, but soon emphatically and openly, in the civilized waking-consciousness.

In the end, what “starts with Rationalism’s fading out in helplessness” concludes “as if a mist cleared off the land and revealed the old forms” of that “first, genuine, young religiousness” that once drove the civilization to cultural greatness. Spengler was predicting a sweeping re-Christianization of the West.

Could this really happen? I do not know. What I am confident of is that, before Christianity could ever flourish again, the iron cage of materialism would indeed need to be broken and the world re-enchanted, filled again with an immanence of spirit. It is the materialist worldview—not pagan foes—that has for centuries smothered and subverted Christian faith and passion.

But with the veil of materialism lifted, could we expect that paganism, too, might have a chance to flourish again, as Davidson predicts? That the West might face a “dark enchantment” as much as a return to the light? Yes, I think so. The deadening effect of materialism has undermined paganism no less than Christianity. Freed from its grip, we may all be off to the races.

In that case I’d say: Do not be afraid. This situation would be familiar terrain for the Church. After all, it was precisely in the pagan world, amid its simultaneous suffering and enchantment, that the Christian faith spread like wildfire. There is no reason it should not do so again. Even in the worst case, if Christianity finds itself badly persecuted, as in Davidson’s pagan America, persecution may ultimately give it new strength—as it so often has.

So perhaps the rise of a little paganism is a necessary development for renewal—a cause for hope, not despair. It may end up merely preparing the way, as it did before. At least I find a wry poetry in the idea that, should we face a great relapse into paganism, the Enemy may have inadvertently planted the seeds of a greater Christian triumph. God does seem to have a strange habit of winning that way.

N. S. Lyons is author of The Upheaval on Substack.

Image by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo on Wikimedia Commons on GetArchive, licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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