The status of conservative thought III: paganism

This one took me by surprise.  Apparently, the idea has been festering in Europe for some time now that the Right should renounce Christianity and embrace paganism.  Alternative Right has brought the idea to America.  By paganism they generally mean not the faith behind the brilliant civilization of Greece and Rome.  The path from Plato and Virgil to Christ has been travelled too many times for this to seem a viable choice.  No, they mean the faith of the unlettered savages of the North who ravaged Europe after this civilization fell, until the Catholic Church restored order.  The linked article by Stephen McNallen actually does a very good job of making the religion of Odin and Thor sound attractive, although he makes not the slightest effort to make it sound true.  Indeed, McNallen’s apologetic for paganism actually prevents him from arguing that his beliefs are objectively true.  For him, the beauty of paganism is in its particularity, its being attached to, and part of the life of, one particular tribe.  A true pagan religion cannot be transplanted; it is not for all men.  Such a religion cannot contain objective truth claims, since these would be universally valid.  Having given up on truth, we must settle for authenticity, or claims thereof.

This quality of paganism would also seem to forclose the possibility of conversion.  After all, we don’t belong to this tribe, so what right do we have to worship its gods?  Here we come to the second aspect of the neopagan apologetic, the claim that the religion of Norse barbarism is still a living force in the West.  This position is set out in book form by James Russell in The Germanization of Medieval Christianity.  Christianity, it is said, was originally an ascetic/world-renouncing, pacific/effeminate faith incapable of sustaining a civilization.  Then the German pagans, source of all virtue and reason, remade the religion in their image, and the West was born.  The claims of this thesis to historical accuracy are taken apart by Thomas Fleming here  more ably than I could do.  I will only point out that the whole thing rests on ignorance of the Christian tradition, based on a few Gospel quotes stripped from their context and an ahistorical fantasy of the gentle Jesus fostered by liberal Protestantism.  The real Christians of 500AD had inherited the whole Old Testament tradition of political theology, and they had been ruling and defending the Roman Empire for two centuries.  The idea that Germans needed to teach Roman legionaries the meaning of valor is just silly.

The claim that paganism lives on among us rests on the existence of pagan “survivals”–Christian practices with pagan antecetents.  The trouble is, one can’t just point out that Christians and pagans share some practice–consecrated virgins, winter holidays, names of days, or whatever–and then take this to prove that paganism is still living in Christendom.  First, the “pagan” thing might really be just a human thing.  Nobody would say that Christians are carrying on pagan tradition by walking upright.  Given common human nature, seasons, and climate, one expects some commonalities.  Second, the “pagan” thing might be something with so little meaning that Christians didn’t bother to change it.  Calling one day of the week “Thursday” doesn’t make you a pagan; you have to actually believe that that day belongs to Thor.  In all these survivals, there is not one that reflects a living connection to a distinct, particular pagan belief.  The neo-pagans are, then, not working to bring a living tradition to full consciousness of itself; rather, they are building a new tradition our of their own fantasies.

Not surprisingly, when modern man abandons his real traditions and tries (whatever he tells himself he’s doing) to fashion a new one on his own, the results aren’t pretty.  Cut off from the living past, he has only his own poor resources, consisting mainly of liberal slogans from the surrounding society.  Surely, though, sturdy Norsemen can do better?  Let’s see what happens when they try.  The intellectual father of the neo-pagan Right is Alain de Benoist.  Alternative Right has reprinted one of his arguments for paganism here.  If you read it (and I promise the Christian reader that his faith will not be shaken), you’ll notice several things

  1. Benoist’s hatred is entirely directed at Judaism and Christianity.  This polytheistic light of the New Right isn’t too bothered by atheism or liberalism; his only criticism of them is that they are too connected to Christianity.
  2. Once again, we find absolutely no arguments for the existence of a plurality of gods, or for any other pagan belief.
  3. The entire case against Christianity and Judaism is that they are “intolerant”.  His main complain against Christianity is that it is anti-semitic.
  4. The entire argument for paganism is that it is tolerant.  It accepts the Other.  It doesn’t persecute.  It is open and accepting.

So, basically, paganism=liberalism.  Somewhere in limbo, Sophocles and Cicero are gagging.

Will the Right be able to confront liberalism in a more principled way if it rejects Christianity and its “universalistic”, “intolerant” claims?  The case of Benoist makes this seem unlikely.  In fact, neo-paganism is just one more way of surrendering to liberalism.  It means abandoning the fort of Christendom and joining the enemy while mumbling nonsense about “blood and soil” to keep from acknowledging one’s cowardice.

11 Responses

  1. He must not understand paganism,then. I don’t worship the Norse Gods, but as a pagan,believe that there is as much possibility of their existence as the existence of mine or any other religion’s deities.

    “Benoist’s hatred is entirely directed at Judaism and Christianity. This polytheistic light of the New Right isn’t too bothered by atheism or liberalism; his only criticism of them is that they are too connected to Christianity.”

    I was once angry at the Judaic religions myself, so I understand his point of view,and yours. At this moment, I consider atheism the greatest threat to my personal religious freedoms, as they are beginning to take on a socialist air, using slogans like “Abolish religion” or “religion has killed more people than cancer” that sound distinctly Stalinist. Given a chance, I think they would abolish religious freedoms altogether. In contrast,I don’t see another Spanish Inquisition any time soon. The atheists hate our religion as much or more than Christianity or Judaism, and certainly more than Islam, which does encourage its followers to kill unbelievers. I don’t understand that.

    “Once again, we find absolutely no arguments for the existence of a plurality of gods, or for any other pagan belief.”

    Would it matter? If I say that everything in the world has a soul,including trees and rocks (a basic and standard pagan belief called “animism”), and I get into a long drawn out metaphysical discussion with you about why I believe that to be the case, and you argue philosophically that it could not be the case, we are comparing subjective belief systems. For me, my conversion happened when I prayed to Pagan gods, and got a suitable answer. I don’t need to convince anyone else what happened, or tell them about it.

    “The entire case against Christianity and Judaism is that they are “intolerant”. His main complain against Christianity is that it is anti-semitic.”

    Many of them are intolerant, but nowhere near as intolerant as the disbeliever who says “I don’t believe in any god, so I’m going to make it against the law for you to do so.”. That is the very essence of intolerance.

    “The entire argument for paganism is that it is tolerant. It accepts the Other. It doesn’t persecute. It is open and accepting.”

    Haha. Not all of us. For instance, I HATE New Agers,Wiccans, and these teeny-bopper dabblers. I vocally attack them whenever possible. I cannot STAND them.

    “WE DON’T WORSHIP THE DEVIL, we just,like, think the earth is SUPER-DUPER cool…and stuff.” Wiccans make us all sound retarded,half of them converted after watching the television show “Charmed” and many of them seriously believe that Wicca is “thousands of years old”.

    In fact, out of hundreds of Pagans that I know, there are maybe 3 that I would invite to a religious ceremony I was conducting. And don’t get me started on trying to convince them that the political left, which is dominated by marxist lesbians,is NOT on the side of Pagans.

    It irks me to no end, because the great Pagans you mentioned, as well as the men I honor and revere, would have doubtless found themselves on the right. Pagans have always been do-it-yourselfers and the term “heathen” used to describe many pagans actually means “from the countryside”,i.e. farmer.

    So why should we support a bunch of city-dwelling,big government-espousing rich people who want to make it illegal for us to practice our beliefs? Doesn’t take a clairvoyant to see how that’ll turn out.

  2. Hello Nergal,

    Thanks for commenting; it’s great to hear the opinion of an actual pagan. It is true that Benoist seems to regard paganism more as a philosophy than a real religion (McNallen is the more attractive of the two pagan apologists linked), but I discussed him because of his unfortunate prominence on the neo-pagan Right.

    I disagree that a philosophical argument between monotheism and polytheism would be just comparing subjectivities. Unfortunately, Christians and pagans have chosen to make the argument about which system makes people nicer, so pagans call Christians “intolerant”, Christians call Benoists “Nazis”, and the whole thiing becomes a competition over who can out-liberal the other. Better, I think, to argue about truth, starting from the illiberal shared premise that the truth about God(s) matters.

    May I ask how you have resolved neo-paganism’s tradition dilemma? To which gods do you pray? For the pagans of old, the answer was obvious: the gods of one’s father and one’s country. But presumably your ancestors and countrymen have been Christian for many generations, so what do you do? I’m not asking to try to trip you up, but because, as a conservative, the idea of restarting a tradition holds a great deal of interest for me.

  3. Thank you for your response. Though we disagree on some points, I believe that you are an intelligent and moral person and I am happy to answer your questions.

    “May I ask how you have resolved neo-paganism’s tradition dilemma?”

    Well, like the Judaic religions, our religion has undergone a sort of reformation since the “good old days”. For instance, when Jesus showed up, many of the Judaic laws were abandoned with the new iteration of the Judaic tradition,Christianity. Similarly, I believe paganism has undergone a similar reformation, where the high priest is no longer necessary to pass on the traditions of paganism. Anyone with the right mindset can act as his own priest, provided the basic tenets of paganism are understood.

    “To which gods do you pray?”

    I admire and pray to many gods,the ones that effected my conversion were some of the gods of the Hellenic pantheon, which is why I recognized and was pleased by your mention of several Greek philosophers who were also devout pagans. At this point, the deities I mainly pray to are Nergal,Ea, and Ereshkigal of the Sumerian Pantheon,but I will pray to what I believe to be other forms of these gods and goddesses,namely Ares, Horus, Hecate,Hel,and all other gods/goddesses associated with occult knowledge,transformation,protection, and victory.

    ” For the pagans of old, the answer was obvious: the gods of one’s father and one’s country. But presumably your ancestors and countrymen have been Christian for many generations, so what do you do?”

    Not exactly, my great -grandmother was full-blooded Native American, and many in my extended family were more sympathetic to the old ways. I believe in many of the tenets of Native American faith, as most pagan religions overlap in several areas,but especially one concept, the idea of the Great Spirit, which I believe is kind of like the catchall container for all gods, the god unmanifest. Once the god acts in its official position as,Ceres for example, it becomes the goddess of the corn, but before that, it is limitless power,the universe, or Great Spirit.
    This belief is also consistent with many pagan religions, Hindu beliefs,for example. The Romans had a similar concept where they would have a statue for “the unknown god” and would make offerings to it, which would cover their obligations to any foreign gods,or any of the lares and penates, so as to not risk offending a god or goddess by not making mention of him or her in their prayers.

    “I’m not asking to try to trip you up, but because, as a conservative, the idea of restarting a tradition holds a great deal of interest for me.”

    And to me,as well. I think the way forward for pagans is to return to our roots. A monastery,for example, where aspirants would be required to grow vegetables and raise animals before any religious education took place would do wonders to inculcate a sense of true pagan values to would-be converts. Being a pagan is not about making a rebellious statement,or a trend, it is ultimately about being thankful for what you have and nothing makes you more appreciative of what you have than working hard to obtain it and the satisfaction of that obtainment.

  4. Hello Nergal,

    Thank you for your kind reply. I see that, in a sense, you did have ancestral gods to go to. By the way, this old post is a better reflection of my opinion of the relationship between Christianity and paganism than my recent take-down of the neo-pagan New Right.

  5. Gentlemen, I hope it is not too late to enter your conversation. I only just learned of this web site, from Deogolwulf at Joy of Curmudgeonry.

    First, my biases: I suppose I have to accept the label Skeptical Conservative, by which I mean one who is right-wing in nearly all but religion. I share Nergal’s concern about the New Atheists, for all that I find their theology the most defensible. Their politics, on the other hand, tend to be dreadful.

    As a religious skeptic, I find the debate between neo-pagan and Christian absolutely fascinating. Theology aside, it seems the choice between them comes down to social usefulness. There are reasons to support both.

    In favor of neo-paganism is the (please excuse me) moribund nature of most Christian practice today. As an outsider, I note that the supposedly eternal truths of religion have been shed rapidly to accommodate changes in the zeitgeist. To me, it appears Christian morality has more to do with the modern liberal consensus than anything else. The Church of Rome seems to have resisted this trend better than most, but the rest of the faith routinely blasts the Catholics for their intransigence in, for instance, not ordaining women. Since the old norms manifestly are failing, and since Christianity has proven ineffective in preserving them, and since human nature requires norms, perhaps it is indeed time to make a new start. Whence neo-pagan religion.

    Unfortunately, the very novelty of neo-paganism seems to me to speak against its authenticity (to borrow your language). And here I do not mean to include the authentic worship of people in Nergal’s circumstances, whom I believe to be a minority, but rather the large number of “spiritual” people bereft of tradition and yet still yearning for religion. We know ancient Germanic and Celtic religions only through the record made by Rome. There is not enough detail for modern practitioners to establish a liturgy. As a result, these neo-pagans are forced to invent much of their ritual (and even their theology). These invented religions simply smack too much of the Directoire calendar, of radical reformation of tradition based on some system of thought, to be a success. I am (pardon the pun) constitutionally suspicious of all wholesale innovation, and the ability of newly old religion to uphold the norms necessary for a civil society is not clear to me. For this reason, if forced to choose, I would tend to support traditional Christianity over any neo-pagan practice.

    Of course, all this assumes the two traditions—if we can call “neo” paganism a tradition—operate equally to instill in the citizenry the virtues necessary for a free republic to flourish. Yes, I understand the view here is monarchist, but I suspect any society, whether a commercial republic like ours, a constitutional monarchy, or an aristocratic republic, would require the same or very similar virtues in its citizens. Ultimately, for a skeptic, the worth of a religion is how well it sustains such virtues in the body politic.

    Where does this leave me? Oddly, somewhat friendly toward a religion that is (to my thinking) obviously made up but nonetheless useful: Mormonism. If everyone lived as Mormons aspire to live, our country would be a healthier place. The obvious usefulness of Mormon norms has been part of the religion’s success. Another, I believe, is that it appears to be a refinement on the existing Christian tradition. Mormons affirm God and Jesus Christ. As a result, converts probably have an easier time of it with their grand-parents.

  6. Hello CONSVLTVS,

    I expect Nergal has gone on to other things, but I’m still around. I agree with you that the Latter Day Saints are, sociologically speaking, a very impressive bunch, while contemporary orthodox Christianity and paganism are not. It’s not a good time for getting social utility out of religion, I suppose.

  7. Benoist:’Pagan thought, on the other hand, which fundamentally remains attached to rootedness and to the place, and which is a preferential center of the crystallization of human identity, rejects all religious and philosophical forms of universalism.’
    Bonald: ‘The entire argument for paganism is that it is tolerant. It accepts the Other. It doesn’t persecute. It is open and accepting.’

    I must protest. Bonald has misunderstood Benoist. Benoist is arguing that paganism is rooted to a specific place, to a tribe, to a tightly knit extended family. Paganism is preferential and rejects universalism. Thus pagans in Benoist’s ideology would reject pagans of other skin colors.

    Benoist is calling for racial pride, not tolerance.

  8. Hello zhai2nan2,

    You make a good point, that it’s not the liberal idea of tolerance (=universal homogenization) that Benoist is promoting. His ideal would allow for genuine global diversity, which is only possible through local intolerance. On the other hand, the main reason Benoist gives for preferring particularism to universalism is that the latter has made Jews and Christians so intolerant, not that it is philosophically untenable and not that it fails to promote the good life. I don’t think that I’ve given this aspect of his thought more weight than he does. In the end, I don’t think this is much better than liberal religious tolerance, which allows us to belong to any religion we like but not to believe that its creed is really true.

  9. ‘liberal religious tolerance, which allows us to belong to any religion we like but not to believe that its creed is really true.’

    I guess there’s another dimension to this, which is how mystically one takes the faith.

    Ascetics and meditators and so on often have little interest in sectarian disputes. A hermit who spends sixteen hours a day in prayer might understand the disputes between Muslims and Christians, but probably won’t really care. They’re all sinners, and they all have to face God.

    One proverb often repeated by Muslim mystics is “In form nothing is God; in essence everything is God.” When one puts every thought through that sort of attitude, it’s harder to pick at distinctions of creed. Some people manage, of course. There are some very dedicated meditators and monks who still call for holy wars over creedal disputes.

  10. I’m not much of a mystic myself. I’m mostly just interested in religion because I like to burn people at the stake.

  11. ‘I like to burn people at the stake.’

    Well, if you find yourself justifying the burnings on the grounds of revelations and visions, you’re being mystical about it. If you rely on legalisms, precedents, and scriptures, you’re being non-mystical about it.

    being a mystic, of course, does not guarantee non-violence or ethical conduct.

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