Keith M. Parsons is Professor of Philosophy at University of Houston, Clear Lake. We invited him to answer the question “Is there a future for the philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.
Late in the fourth century CE the emperor Theodosius I issued a number of decrees making Nicene Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire and effectively outlawing the ancient Greco-Roman pagan religious practices and rites. Perhaps the most symbolically significant act was the disbanding of the order of Vestal Virgins and the extinction of the eternal fire in the Temple of Vesta. The full conversion of the “barbarians” of northern and eastern Europe took several centuries longer. The last European conversion from paganism occurred in Lithuania in 1386, but in Europe as a whole conversion was effectively accomplished, often by force, by the year 1000.1
However, in many countries once considered the heart of Christendom, the past few decades have seen the remarkable rise of the religious movement known as Modern Paganism or Neo-Paganism. This movement encompasses a great variety of groups, including Wicca, Heathenry, Druidry, and numerous other identities. While the beliefs of these groups are very diverse and often eclectic, they each represent a conscious effort to revive the spirit of pre-Christian religiosity. In some cases, such as the modern practice of Asatru in Iceland, there is an effort to revive ancient paganism.2
Aspects or elements of neopaganism have been associated with extremist ideologies, “New Age” fatuities, and even white supremacy, and this makes it easy for critics to scorn the movement.3 Yet ancient paganism and its modern revivals and reconstructions have a number of features worthy of discussion by academic philosophy of religion. I identify three such features:
1) The non-soteriological nature of pre-Axial religions.
2) Nascent pantheism.
3) The inseparability of the sacred and the secular.
I consider these sequentially.
(1) In his magisterial An Interpretation of Religion, John Hick identifies a soteriological emphasis as the distinguishing mark of those religions arising in the so-called “Axial Age” (approximately 800-200 BCE).4 The distinctive features of Judaism (and, consequently, Christianity and Islam), Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism took shape during this “Axial” period. We may call “pre-Axial” religions the “national” religions of ancient Egypt, Babylon, Greece, and the Norse/Teutonic regions of northern Europe, as well as the animistic and shamanistic religions of preliterate peoples. These pre-Axial religions did not view human life as fundamentally flawed or fallen and therefore in need of some form of liberation, redemption, or transcendence. Ancient religion did not offer salvation from the world, but a means of living in harmony and balance within the world. Pre-Axial religions served to provide stability through the vicissitudes of life, continuity through life’s major transitions, and a sense of solidarity and identity within communities. By contrast, the post-Axial religions, today’s “great” religious traditions, agree that human life is radically unsatisfactory and in need of salvific transformation. Christianity, for instance, views human life as a “fallen” state whereby sin has alienated humans from God. Hinduism regards humans as trapped in the endlessly repeated cycle of birth and death, a wheel driven by karma. Buddhists see life as subject to mental and physical suffering, loss, despair, and the frustration of desire. To remedy these ills, Christianity offers salvation through faith in Christ, Hinduism shows the way to moksha, and Buddhism offers enlightenment and nirvana.
(2) In the Abrahamic religions, the physical world is God’s creation, and, though wondrous, is not itself divine. In the pre-Axial religions, earth and sky are deities. In the Theogony, the first being to emerge from primeval chaos is Gaia, Earth. In the Norse/Teutonic mythology, the goddess Erda is the Earth, possessor of primordial wisdom. Her daughters, the Norns, weave the fate of the world. In the Egyptian religion the sky was the goddess Nut whose body was the vault of heaven arching over the Earth. In short, in the pre-Axial religions, the world was not just populated by gods; the world was gods. The divinity of the world was adopted by early philosophers and rationalized into non-anthropomorphic forms that are detectable in the hylozoism of Thales, the “fire” of Heraclitus, the Nous of Anaxagoras, the logos of Stoicism, and perhaps even in the teleology of Aristotle. Likewise, a modern pagan need not retain a literal belief in anthropomorphic deities of earth and sky, yet can see the universe itself as worthy of our deepest feelings of wonder and awe. Such an attitude has been expressed by some of the greatest scientists, such as Einstein, who referred to the universe as Der Herr Gott (The Lord God), and Darwin whose peroration at the end of The Origin of Species evokes a profound sense of wonder.
(3) For the classical Greeks, there was no clear demarcation between the secular and the sacred or between the religious and the civil; indeed, the concept of “religion” as a distinct category did not exist:
The Greeks had no word for religion. Gods were thought to be everywhere, and religion was a part of everyday life: it was not divorced from mundane activities and therefore no word categorized it.5
The sacred was where you found it, and they found it in many places, both in nature and in human creations. Greek religiosity thus retained features of preliterate religion as characterized by Hick:
Whereas in the thinking of modern technological people “the spiritual” is generally relegated to a margin of private fantasy or “faith,” it seems that for pre-literate people it has always been a part of the world…there is no division between ordinary secular life and special religious moments but rather a single seamless fabric in which what the modern world sees as the “natural” is everywhere suffused with “supernatural” presence and meaning.6
In short, the sacred is immediate and accessible, not sequestered, remote, otherworldly, or dispensed piecemeal by a sacerdotal system.
It appears, then, that pre-Axial and pagan traditions, and their modern revivals or reconstructions, express or at least adumbrate a number of concepts worthy of deeper reflection and analysis by the philosophy of religion: Perhaps religion can be seen not as offering salvation from a putatively dismal state, but as an affirmation of life and a commitment to the realization of its full potentialities. Maybe, instead of being addressed to distant deities, our deepest feelings of awe and wonder are best satisfied by contemplation of the universe itself. Perhaps the sacred is not sequestered or remote—hedged by institutions and dogma—but is available to all and is encountered in nature, art, and in loving human relationships.
1. See Karsh, Jonathan, God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism, (New York: Viking Compass, 2004), and Fletcher, Richard, The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity, (New York: Henry Holt, 1997).
2. See https://icelandmag.is/article/11-things-know-about-present-day-practice-asatru-ancient-religion-vikings.
However, see also M. Strmiska, “Asatru in Iceland: The Rebirth of Nordic Paganism?”
Strmiska argues that current Icelandic Asatru cannot really revive Nordic paganism, but is inevitably a modern religion. However, whether Asatru and other neopagan movements are construed as revivals or reconstructions of ancient religion—or merely as motivated and inspired by myth and history—is irrelevant if, as I argue here, their ideas should be taken seriously. Further, neopagans could argue tu quoque that no religion has been more malleable or protean than Christianity. Further, a modern Christian attempting to revive the belief and practice of the earliest Christian communities would face problems similar to those encountered by the attempt to revive ancient paganism.
3. Modern worship of the Mother Goddess is associated with the unhistorical claim that primitive Europeans lived in peaceful, egalitarian societies that revered women and were ruled by benevolent matriarchs. The primitive matriarchy myth is thoroughly debunked by Bruce S. Thornton in Plagues of the Mind: The New Epidemic of False Knowledge (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 1999). The attempted hijacking of Asatru by racists is detailed by Sigal Samuel in The Atlantic Monthly:
4. Hick, John, An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent, Second Edition, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), pp. 21-35.
5. Adkins, Leslie and Adkins, Roy A., Handbook to Life in Ancient Greece, (Oxford: Oxford University Press), p. 284).
6. Hick, p. 24.