Sunday, December 31, 2023

Paganism as punching bag. | Deposit Photos

One of the disadvantages of blogging only on Sundays is that if something I'm dying to comment on happens on a Monday, my choices are few. I could: break tradition and post early; yell about it on Facebook; or save it for the following Sunday's post, when the news has become kinda old and stale. 

This week was a prime example. On Monday -- Christmas Day! -- The Atlantic dropped an outrageously ignorant article by David Wolpe entitled "The Return of the Pagans". This opinion piece so angered thought leaders in the Pagan movement that most suggested linking to the free version reposted by MSN, to avoid giving it any more traffic (and The Atlantic any more revenue from clicks) than it deserves. So my link above leads to that free version on MSN.

Wolpe is the Max Webb Chief Rabbi Emeritus of Sinai Temple, a visiting scholar at Harvard Divinity School, and a columnist for New York Jewish Week and the Jerusalem Post. Newsweek has called him the most influential rabbi in America. He may be an expert on Judaism, but it's clear he's no scholar of religion in general, other than his own and perhaps Christianity. If he were a religious scholar, he would have known better than to conflate Pagan beliefs with the worship of wealth and idols like Elon Musk and Donald Trump. If he were a religious scholar, he would have known better than to write such howlers as, "Most ancient pagan belief systems were built around ritual and magic, coercive practices intended to achieve a beneficial result," without acknowledging that monotheism is also built around ritual and magic -- and that Christianity in particular, with its drive to proselytize and convert everyone everywhere, partakes of far more "coercive practices" than any Pagan -- or pagan -- belief system ever has. 

There's a big advantage for me to waiting until today to comment on Wolpe's article: I'm batting cleanup, if you will. A number of those thought leaders in Paganism have already published rebuttals. Sabina Magliocco, chair of the Program in the Study of Religion at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, posted on Facebook her letter to the editor of the magazine. She covers a number of points I was going to get to, chief among them this: "Wolpe distorts the fact that non-monotheistic and Indigenous religions tend to see divinity as immanent as well as transcendent. In other words, all living beings hold a spark of the divine; the gods are manifest in each of us. This idea is intended to inspire respect for all life forms. Indigenous religions, in fact, place primacy not on the individual, as he asserts, but on relationality and community, broadly defined to include other-than-human persons."

Magliocco would also like to inform Wolpe that paganism is not relegated to the misty past; there are several million Pagans in North America today, and a whole lot of us believe things that put us closer to Indigenous belief, particularly the part about immanent deity, than the strawman Wolpe has concocted and dubbed "pagan".

Others who have made valuable contributions to the discussion (so I don't have to!) include Manny Moreno at The Wild Hunt; Jason Mankey on Raise the Horns at Patheos Pagan; John Halstead on Medium; and Angelo Nasios on Hearth of Hellenism at Substack (who is not Pagan but whose area of expertise is Hellenism). Several of them point out that Wolpe is not actually referencing today's Pagans in his piece; instead, he's using the folkloric concept of ancient pagans that's popular with monotheistic apologists when they want to elevate their own belief systems and prove that their religion is so much better than what went before. Except of course that that romantic view of pagan bumpkins whose lives were brutish, nasty, and short is a myth, at least as far as philosophy is concerned (see the Greeks).

Too, Wolpe falls into the trap of Western hubris that insists that the evolution of civilization -- including religion and philosophy -- is more or less a straight line, with each step an improvement. These folks swear that hunter-gatherers died out when farming took hold, that the Industrial Revolution made everyone's lives better by getting workers off the farm and into factories, and so on. Never mind that the archeological record doesn't bear out the first, and the economic and ecological evidence right before our eyes puts paid to the second. What's more, Indigenous thinkers have been criticizing the Western penchant for this feel-good bullshit for hundreds of years (see The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow, which I included on my reading list a while back).

The longer the week went on and the more I thought about Wolpe's article, the more it seemed familiar. Then it hit me. Back in March, The Atlantic posted a similar piece, except that it was by a Christian apologist -- Timothy Keller, the pastor of a Presbyterian church in Manhattan. I even blogged about it at the time. Now, Keller's post isn't exactly the same as Wolpe's, but they do rhyme. Both authors believe that American society is going downhill; both blame it on the emphasis in popular culture on individualism; and both believe the solution is for everybody to turn back to some flavor of monotheism (in Keller's case, his).

So my response to Wolpe is the same as was my response to Keller back in March: The solution to society's ills won't be found in monotheism until you guys can acknowledge how and why your belief systems have alienated so many people. Once you've done that, come on back and we'll chat.* But in the meantime, quit punching "pagan" strawmen to make yourselves feel better.

And to The Atlantic: How about equal time for polytheists?


*A chat with Wolpe won't be happening any time soon. He says he didn't mean to insult modern Pagans (as if that makes it any better) and is declining requests for interfaith dialogue. 


And with that, we close out 2023. Here's hoping for peace and sanity for all of us in the new year.


These moments of punchy blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. Happy New Year! Imbibe responsibly! Stay safe!


Anonymous said...

I second the vote for equal time! You should send your article to the Atlantic!

Lynne Cantwell said...

Thanks! I meant to send it, but the week got away from me...