Philosopher Robert P. George delivered a speech in Washington, D.C., last month concerning the resurgence of paganism. The speech reprised his foreword to Steven D. Smith’s recent Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac. George takes his notion of “neo-paganism” from Smith, who takes it from T. S. Eliot. Eighty years ago, Eliot presented a series of lectures at Cambridge University titled “The Idea of a Christian Society,” in which he predicted that the future of Western societies would be determined by a contest between Christianity and “modern paganism.”
Smith believes this battle is happening now, as a “religious” conflict. He rejects the idea that the world moves smoothly from religion to secularism because “the parties and factions on all sides of the divide exhibit qualities standardly associated with ‘religion’: an uncompromising zeal or passion, a tendency to view issues in ‘good versus evil’ or ‘light versus darkness’ terms, an eagerness to demonize opponents.” Progressives have faith—not in a god, but in racial justice, gay rights, equality, etc.
Both Smith and George have highlighted some of the ideas inherent in the progressive faith, in particular concerning the meaningful, the valuable, the good and bad, the right and wrong. George notes that the liberal philosophers of the late 20th century (Rawls especially) claimed to be proposing a vision of justice “neutral as between controversial conceptions of what makes for or detracts from a valuable and morally worthy way of life.” George considers such neutrality an impossibility. But in his speech last month he observed that “progressives,” having won the culture wars (for now, anyway), in victory have abandoned even the pretense of neutrality. In control of education, media, arts, and corporations, they now advance within even the Catholic Church.
What increasingly confronts us in these contexts is an ideological, selective notion of the human good. And the question “What is good?” is decided by how much muscle the protagonist can summon to prosecuting his ideas. As George says, the progressive ideology is built on premises into which controversial ideas—about human nature, the human good, human dignity, and human destiny—have been spirited with the purpose of rendering them axiomatic. The fact that these ideas are, objectively speaking, at least as “controversial” as any religious idea is no longer admissible. The recent redefinition of marriage is a prime example.
Christianity was engaged, from the beginning, with earthly things: law, justice, the common good—the conditions, boundaries, and pitfalls of the human condition—and these ideas challenged the pagan monopoly on earth-centered ideas. The first Christians were regarded with profound suspicion by both the Roman authorities and the pagans, with sex one of the chief bugbears. As Smith puts it, they feared that Christians would “turn the lights out on the party.”
We have come full circle. The lights have been switched back on, or so we are assured. The Christian view of sex is again almost universally regarded as mere prudery or bigotry, whereas sex is deemed central to human well-being, freedom, and identity. Christian circumspection on these “freedoms” is therefore seen not merely as party-pooping, but as damaging to human welfare.
George believes a reversal of these circumstances is unlikely to happen soon. Most Christians think the most they can hope for are “some protections for their own liberty to lead their lives as they see fit.” But the idea that progressivism simply wants a culture of “live and let live,” he adds, is “no longer operative.” Many Christians face the likelihood of their children being indoctrinated and inculcated into a culture of libertinism they fear promises existential and spiritual destruction. There is no mercy, no concessions, no tolerance for the beliefs of the losers.
The message of neo-pagan progressivism is clear: The war is over and we won—suck it up. The party has recommenced with gusto and the neo-pagans plan to punish Christians for their fealty to a belief system that is the enemy of “progressive” illumination—and to ensure that Christians never again get close to the light switch. Some Christians, George points out, have already decided to become the “useful idiots” of the neo-pagan insurgency, maintaining the visible forms of faith while surrendering its moral substance.
George is not a fan of strategic retreat: “We have an obligation as believers to bear faithful witness to the values and principles we know are integral to justice and human flourishing.” As evidenced by calls for removing tax-exempt status from institutions holding to traditional ideas of marriage, Christians have no hiding place. “We are back in the position of our forebears in imperial Rome.” Can we, George asks, find the courage to be faithful, “to boldly bear witness to truths that are unpopular among those controlling the levers of cultural, political, and economic power?”
George describes the situation succinctly. His final summation, however, falls into the trap of employing language that has different meanings for the two sides. His call for courage is an example: It describes what Christians have to do, yet it reads to the neo-pagan side as merely a call to increased piety and perhaps stoicism. But if what we believe is “true” in some sense other than historical verity, then its truths speak eternally to the whole of humanity, and are essential to the chances of every member of the human race not merely achieving eternal salvation but also realizing happiness on earth. We “bear witness” not merely to demonstrate our indefatigability but also to save our neighbor—and not merely from the “fires of Hell” but from the pagan error, and consequent unhappiness, of seeing freedom as the satisfaction of immediate desires.
The neo-pagan ideology does not simply ignore the transcendent possibilities of the human journey. It also ignores much of the structure of the human person and what is crucial to the adequate functioning of the human in this dimension. What Eliot, Smith, and George denote as paganism treats of the human being in the tunnel of human life from the beginning of personhood to something close to the moment of death. It omits the before and after, the origin and destination, as well as the questions that emerge from such an extended concept of the human journey in and beyond this dimension.
Smith writes that humans have an essential religious dimension. Without appreciating this, he maintains, “we will not understand what people are or why they behave in the ways they do.” He has in mind, I believe, what the extraordinary Italian priest Luigi Giussani described as “the religious sense.” By this he meant “the human being’s nature in its ultimate stature,” which identifies “the whole of life’s meaning with something comprehensible to it.”
This (seventh?) sense is directed at the question of meaning. Man is that “miniscule particle” that seeks reasons for the existence of everything, especially himself. The “I,” says Giussani, is a promise of something, and life is the journey we undertake in pursuit of that promise. No one thing, or any combination of things, amounts to the answer, so that the total meaning is mystery. This is actually the fulcrum of the religious imagination: the idea that we are defined by something we cannot fully know or understand.
The religious sense is directed at the vital questions: Why do I exist? Where, if anywhere, am I going? What is the ultimate meaning of existence? Why something rather than nothing? Why pain and death? By Giussani’s exposition, these dimensions of the human are hardwired: We cannot effectively dispense with them. Even if we organize our thoughts to avoid them, they remain defining questions, liable to surface with extreme urgency at any moment.
This takes the role of Christians beyond mere “witnessing.” I do not think that, as a community, Christians have been reflecting adequately upon what is lost in the promotion of the secular-liberal anti-ethos. In light of Smith’s and Giussani’s observations, it is notable that, whereas the neo-pagan dispensation extends maximum indulgence to certain kinds of human characteristics (sexual preference, gender “choices,” race, etc.), it increasingly withholds approval for this other “layer” of human identity. This denial is justified implicitly on the basis that religion is a “software” issue, a matter of choice, whereas the others—sex, race, etc.— are “hardware issues,” outside the control of the implicated person.
To see religion as “software” is to see things from the perspective of the skeptic, the unbeliever, from a position of hostility. We know why neo-pagans might choose to see things in that way, but more mysterious is why religious people increasingly limit their pleading to petitions for tolerance, space, freedom-to-practice, etc.
By Giussani’s analysis the religious sense is concerned not just with membership in a church, or with prescribed lists of dogmas, rules, beliefs, or theologies, but with the notion that there is an element of the human person to which only transcendent concepts are capable of providing a correspondence. Recently, Pope Francis compared the hope offered by faith to “the air we breathe,” an apt metaphor. When religious rights are suppressed, so too is the capacity of the human being—including the secular human being—to breathe fully in reality.
Religion deals with those aspects of the human that concern imagining ourselves before, during, and after our earthly existence—in and on either side of the “tunnel” of the earthly trajectory. Neo-pagan culture cherishes the human in the tunnel of this existence only. When we are dying and frightened, society offers to sedate us but refuses to do any more than “tolerate” notions of a further journey beyond this dimension. In the pope’s metaphor: Our breathing becomes subject to cultural constriction.
If the idea of “live and let live” is applied only to the right of Christians to privately believe in daft ideas, there will come a time when each of us is excluded from the protection of the human community in the context of its institutions, laws, and enabling ideas.
To love another person deeply is to care for her ultimate spiritual well-being. This, inter alia, means wishing to protect her from error that might damage her chances of eternal happiness. Since we cannot know for sure, it seems wise to treat eternity as a real prospect. To exclude this dimension from our public culture, therefore, is to risk denying every human person vital sustenance and support.
Nor are Christian beliefs about sex arbitrary impositions on freedom. They are observations of reality, of the limits of the human and the inevitable consequences of breaching those limits. Christian teaching concerning sexuality, including warnings of the dangers of the sexual revolution, protects the human person from losing the possibility of peace and even happiness on earth. And this speaks to a form of freedom, perhaps the only true kind. In this sense, it is vital for society that these ideas be protected and preserved.
For Christians the point is not to seek “tolerance” for our beliefs. The point is to ensure the continued visibility and availability to humanity-at-large of the religious sense—to ensure this vital human hardware does not become suppressed, lost, or forgotten.
John Waters is an Irish writer and commentator, the author of ten books, and a playwright.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?