The Place of Paganism among Abrahamic, Dharmic and Secular Religions
Michael York
“The Culture of Peace and Development of Civil Society”
Vilnius University of Law, UNESCO and Lietuvos Ramuvu Sajunga
Vilnius, Lithuania
19 April 2002

The link between ethnicity and culture establishes itself during the period of human evolution in which spiritual practice was understood in what today we would label as a pagan orientation. The ethnos of people, tribe and/or community was directly connected to the natural environment and how this last variously threatened and supported human existence. There was not yet a degree of insulation and protection from the vagaries of nature that industrial civilisation has produced in the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Nor was there yet the proliferation of institutional differentiation that characterises the social complexity of today. In the origins of ethnos and culture, the community was essentially homogenised and unified in its protective stance against both natural and human foe. Unlike the increasingly cosmopolitan world of current times in which a plurality of ethnicities and religions live together in intermingled existence, ethnos and people were essentially a unity.

Consequently, in our pre-industrial stage of development, what we understand as nature in the form of wild life, topography, climate and the seasons was an immediate concern of any social unit. Nature was both potential enemy and potential friend. It was also something largely unpredictable and uncertain, and religion may have arisen precisely out of man’s desire to insure his odds of survival and protection. According to Stewart Guthrie, nature became personified so that the human being could feel there was something with whom he or she could negotiate, to win as an ally and forge the transition from helpless victim to empowered master. This transition begins as far as we know for certain with the neolithic times of human development: that stage of progress marked essentially by the emergence of agriculture and writing. History only begins when we have the means to record it. For the pre-historic times of the palaeolithic and megalithic peoples, we know little of their beliefs and religious practices for certain. We can instead and at best only surmise and speculate about them. But with the appearance of writing, culture becomes known through the word and the semantic register and not just through the chance survival and artefact.

But if culture is what becomes an enduring legacy through the cuneiform tablet, the sepulchre hieroglyphics, papyrus demotics, the handwritten scroll and the post-Gutenberg printed book, it is agriculture and the accompanying animal domestication of husbandry that become the decisive factors in cultural evolution as we know it since neolithic times. With the production of a food surplus, specialisation and social differentiation become a possibility for the first time.

But as the division of labour comes to distinguish and transform the formerly unified community, social development never loses its grounding in nature and humanity’s fundamental impact with it. Indeed, our very word for culture derives from the past participle cultus of the Latin verb colere – signifying not only the `tilling’ of the earth but also `worship’: literally the `making of the worthwhile’. In other words, in what is pre-eminently a pagan spiritual understanding, the physical working of the earth is regarded as the fundamental act of worship. Consequently, the production of nourishment from the earth by the neolithic ethnos is an original expression of that people’s religious practice – one in which nature and humanity intimately interconnect. And, again, this fundamental level of intimate interconnection, a physical spiritual connection, exemplifies the pagan origin of religion itself.

Even more, as one cultivates the edible sustenance upon which physical life depends, so too does one cultivate the individual elements and perspectives that constitute a culture. In its origin, a culture is that identifying expression of an ethnos that is deliberately cultivated. It involves continually developing and refining within the particular framework of ethnic knowledge and perspective. For the ancients, this cultivation was itself seen as a religious process. It constituted worship in its fullest sense. And with this understanding, a culture or a religion or a culture as a form of ethnic religion may be seen as essentially an articulation of collective prayer. In today’s understanding of religion – whether ethnic, local or universal, what is cultivated are the particular rituals, festivals, theology, practices and sacred artefacts `belonging’ to the given religion. A specific religion represents a way of organising time and space, and it provides its adherents a framework and materials with which to work.

In the increasing differentiation of society and the social labour within it, human history continues to reveal the superimposition of hierarchical structuring and the appearance of rulers and subjects. Instead of aboriginal empowerment, there develops what Starhawk and others label the `power-over’ relationship. Hierarchy of course is not itself unnatural or even anti-natural. It is a fundamental aspect of natural evolution as theorist Ken Wilber outlines in his A Brief History of Everything (1996). But in the political development of hierarchy, everything becomes a possible tool – including religion. We see the emergence of ruling priesthoods in the ancient civilisations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia, India, China, Japan and the Americas. And while most of this original development occurred within what was still a pagan spiritual framework (this-worldly animistic and physical spirituality), in time the necessities involved in control and subjugation led to the emergence of radically new and different forms of religious codifications. Karl Marx may have been partially correct in his opiate of the masses contention, namely, that religion is a tool by which the ruling class manipulates and keeps in place its proletariat of workers, but Marx had little or no understanding of the pagan roots of religion where the individual and his/her society evaluate their relationship to the natural world, the non-empirical and each other as the means by which to locate value and meaning.

Paganism is the root-religion. It is the source from which the `tree of religion’ grows – the tree that has brought forth what we can identify as its Abrahamic, Dharmic and Secular branches. If we say that the basic religious traditions are Pagan, Dharmic, Abrahamic and Secular, we refer of course to these constructs as `ideal-types’. They do not exist in and as themselves, but they serve as standards or models against which to measure and assess any given religion. Such religions as the classical expressions of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, the tribal configurations of equatorial Africa, Oceania, Amazonia or the Americas more broadly, the Afro-Atlantic diaspora of Santeria, Candomble and Voodoo, the diffuse assemblages of Chinese folk practices or Japanese Shinto, and the developments of contemporary Western paganism, namely, Wicca, witchcraft, Odinism or Asatruar, Druidry, Kemetic spirituality and so forth all conform to one degree or another to the Pagan ideal-type. With the exception of the Neo-pagan forms of Wicca and witchcraft and such reconstructions as Egyptian, classic Greco-Roman and Celtic spiritualities, these are virtually all ethnic religiosities that demonstrate various degrees of continuity with national or tribal cultural-identities. To these, we may add the Baltic revivals of indigenous religious practice, namely, the Lithuanian Romuva and the Latvian Dievturiba. Each of these orientations conforms to certain common denominators that together continue specific sentiments, perceptions, theological-ideological assumptions and atavistic behaviours and/or practices that approximate the root-level of all religio-spiritual development.

In other words, all other religious growth represents either a modification or rejection of the pagan origins of religion. Such Dharmic religions as Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism have to various degrees worked with – rather than against – the primordial connection with nature and magic, but they ultimately seek to transcend the mundane and this-worldly focus of pagan understanding. Through moksha, samadhi or nirvana, the Dharmic emphasis is to escape the worldly and any further connection with it. While paganism tends to affirm life - and desire as the well-spring behind it - the Dharmic spiritualities wish to eliminate all desire and the physical attachment that results from it.

It is, however, the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam that have historically assumed a radically anti-pagan militantism. Beginning with Jewish antipathy toward Canaanite worship of Baal and Asherah, the Philistine Dagon or its own Golden Calf in the Sinai, condemnation of idolatry and its accompanying spiritual framework has persisted in the Christian eradication of pagan places of worship throughout Europe and the Americas, and in Moslem destruction of pre-Islamic Arabian shrines and idols (e.g., the obliteration of the 360 resident deities of Mecca’s kaaba) and the Moghul iconoclasm across the Indian subcontinent. The Abrahamic monotheisms have invariably sought to replace the understanding of immanent divine presence in pantheistic and polytheistic formulations of godhead with enforced dogmas based on the personalistic transcendentalism of theism. The Abrahamic God is wholly other and antecedent to the world and its organic spontaneity and rhythms. Especially in its Christian and Islamic forms, this world and this life are merely preparations or testing grounds for a greater reality that is to come in the hereafter. There may be a nominal acceptance of the tangible world as the `gift’ of God but still no real endorsement of it, and from the pagan perspective that acceptance is at best something that occurs only begrudgingly.

But if the Abrahamic religions oppose the root-level of religion, the Secular understandings of atheism, agnosticism, scepticism and scientific methodology tend, in their fullest forms, to oppose all religion. Whether the evolutionary intellectualist approaches of Herbert Spencer, E.B. Tylor or James Frazer who see magic as primitive and superseded by religion which, in turn, will give way to the rationalistic understandings of science, or the psychoanalytic approach of Sigmund Freud that regards religion as infantile wish-projection, the religious option is totally rejected against a posited goal consisting of humanity’s supposedly judicious maturity. From a dogmatic scientistic point-of-view, religion is a superstitious obstacle to human progress. It is something that should be eliminated altogether.

Consequently, there are four basic choices for individuals, communities and societies: religion can be abandoned completely as an unnecessary and fruitless pursuit, it can be made to conform to a particularistic agenda that seeks reward in post-mortem existence, it can be used to transform the emotions associated with the ups-and-downs of life into a state of detached emancipation, or it can be endorsed as an affirmative celebration of the fullness of life. It is this last, of course, that is pagan, and it is this option that approximates the root-level of all religion as a positing of the identity of and relationship between the world, humanity and supernatural in terms of value allocation, meaning assignment and validation enactment. And as the root-level of inceptive perception, we are the closest to the natural associations of ethnic identity. In fact, the pagan and the ethnic are designations that survive in tandem. While the term `pagan’ is Latin and signifies originally the `ward’ of `district’ (and not as commonly reported the rural countryside as supposedly the last resistant bulwark against the Church Triumphant), `ethnic’ derives from the Greek ethnos `people, nation’. In time both terms came to be used interchangeably for `heathen’. The argument, therefore, is that the ethnic/pagan option is the oldest that stands before homo religiosus, and in our contemporary world of fragmentation and alienation – one in which respect for origins, roots and the wisdom of our elders possibly offers a sane way through the labyrinth of modern life to a re-grounded centeredness, ethnic (pagan) religions and the ancestral continuity they embody provide a viable identity with which to navigate contemporary uncertainties and yet simultaneously be commensurate with modern and postmodern aspirations. Building on the spiritual heritage of our deepest ethnic pasts, we are able to re-locate a regenerative locus that counteracts the depersonalisation of twentieth and twenty-first century bureaucratic society in ways that can support our communities and their integrated growth.

From a sociological perspective, we can see that the contemporary attraction to paganism is spontaneous and intuitive. People tend to be drawn to it. Much of the impulse stems from the nature orientation of paganism which appears to speak especially to those concerned with the ecological plight of the post-industrial world. As a spirituality that values an intimate connection with one’s environment, people appear to have increasingly turned to it as a response to what is perceived to be an abdication by traditional Abrahamic religion from the crisis of urban pollution or even its responsibility for it in the first place. Transcendental religions tend to devalue the world and nature. This along with the Genesis injunction for man to subdue and dominate the natural are held to be responsible for the degradation and increasing loss of nature. But even apart from the ecological factors that tend to motivate many today to explore the pagan option, as a root-religion in a confusing and inorganic world, paganism seems to hold a natural and spontaneous appeal.

The question is, however, whether ethnic religion is compatible with modern life. If the rapidly growing numbers attracted to the religion are any indication, the answer would appear to be yes. Paganism is among the most rapidly expanding spiritualities in the world today. For one, it is a spiritual orientation that promotes sponsorship of the autonomous individual. This alone is completely compatible with modern/postmodern social trends. Western civilisation itself has a long and central tradition of individualism – an individualism in fact that often runs counter to the conformist dictates of the established Church. Western culture has retained at its core a tension between the person and the society or state. As we continue to become evermore accustomed to bureaucracy and governmental domination, the affirmation of the self has tended to become muted. As American writer Gore Vidal said recently in an interview, “We are cowed. Cowed by disinformation from the media, a skewed view of the world, and atrocious taxes that subsidize [a] permanent war machine” (Los Angeles Times/L.A. Weekly, 3 July 2002). Vidal is of course speaking specifically about the American people, but his comments are generally applicable to situation as it is found across the Western states. New religious developments in the West tend in response to be of two essential kinds. Either they offer an even greater withdrawal into some kind of regimented and controlled order, or, in contrast, they stress the development of self-reliance and independence. New Age religions have been labelled by British sociologist Paul Heelas as `self-religions’; contemporary Western pagan religions are increasingly referred to as `nature religions’. But both emphasise individual autonomy and exegesis in ways that become antithetical to the kinds of bureaucratic and corporate hegemony that stifle personal expression. Consequently, if ethnic/pagan religion is compatible with a prevailing and increasingly emerging status quo within modern social conformity, the answer would be no. But if we ask whether ethnic/pagan religion is compatible with the foundations of Western culture and the postmodern response to any concerted drive to reduce all to a logic of the same, the answer is yes. Paganism champions the individual and his/her continual evolution as well as renewal. Ethnic paganism provides the supportive community for individual growth – a community that in turn benefits from the stronger individualisms that compose it.

But the ultimate concern in the question of whether ethnic religion is compatible with modern/postmodern life is ethical. In their origins and bias of scope, the ethnic religions are provincial and exclusive. Paganism is born in and as a multitude of tribal expressions. Its gods and their accompanying mythologies often depict an amoral array of behaviour. But it is important here to distinguish between amorality and immorality. They are not the same thing. The quest for contemporary times is to develop a postmodern interpretation on the primordial incest roles of the gods that is commensurate in and for the twenty-first century. Paganism’s myths are metaphors rather than literal, historic events, and, as such, they are hermeneutically flexible and open to re-interpretations compatible with different circumstances and different times.

Etymologically, both `ethnic’ and `ethic’ develop from the same root referring to `custom’ and suggesting that ethics are first and foremost that of the ethnos, the people of the community itself. Ethnos and ethics are virtually interchangeable cognates. But what has become different in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is that people and/or community are increasingly a global one. Today’s world community is a cosmopolitan collection of many ethnicities.

Consequently, while paganism locates its origins in a world and time of separate ethnic and tribal identities, as a world religion – one that ranks alongside Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam – it ultimately transcends the tribal. In other words, it grows out of the tribal, honours the tribal and ritually enacts it, but paganism in the contemporary milieu of pluralistic affirmation aspires to a trans-ethical condition of being.

In transcending the ethical in the present world of postmodern globalisation, any ethnicity, community or nation-state must contend with the legacy of the Anglo-Saxon `winner-take-all’ tribal mentality. This may ultimately be the most interesting from within the tribal register, but it is far outside the parameters of the others in terms of compatibility and cooperation. In the changing complexity and fragility of eco-balance in our shrinking world and concomitant depletion of its resources, we are facing a situation of either  `a win for all’ or `a win for none’.

In the necessity to construct a viable and sustainable forum of global cooperation, the advantage of ethnic religion with its capabilities to transmute into a world paganism means that, through paganism, we are simultaneously poised to obtain a position of transcending ethics. In other words, we would be enabled to transcend all exclusive platforms on which to make judgments. Without judging our neighbours and others, we are emancipated from the kind of belligerent frictions that up to now have continued to scar our world. Without being overly or procivincially committed to a `my way is better than yours’ or to a `my way is right and yours is wrong’ position, we can, as the full human species inhabiting this planet, endeavour to cooperate globally.

Paganism extends the sacred to everything. As an organic and natural spirituality, it roots in its separate and individualistic ethnic origins, honours these and nourishes them, and ultimately, from this kind of holistic foundation, it becomes different than all the sectarian positions that have given rise to it in the first place. The ethnic religions are the roots of the pagan tree, and it is this tree that can produce a flower and fruit for the pleasure and nourishment of all world citizens who aspire toward a global community of progressive interdependence unhindered by wars, petty greeds and extremes of economic disequality.



Articles in the periodicals:

Cooper, Marc. “The Last Defender of the American Republic?: An interview with Gore Vidal.” Los Angeles Times/L.A. Weekly. Wednesday, 03 July 2002.

Guthrie, Stewart Elliott. “Religion: What Is It?” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 35.4 (December 1996:412-419).

Other references:

Corrington, Robert S. Nature’s Religion. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997.

Cunningham, Graham. Religion and Magic: Approaches and Theories. New York: New York University Press, 1999.

Heelas, Paul. The New Age Movement: The Celebration of the Self and the Sacralization of Modernity. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.

Martin, Bill. Matrix and Line: Derrida and the Possibilities of Postmodern Social Theory. Albany: SUNY, 1992.

Simos, Miriam (Starhawk). The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1979.

Wilber, Ken. A Brief History of Everything. Boston & London: Shambhala, 1996.

York, Michael. The Emerging Network: A Sociology of the New Age and Neo-pagan Movements. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1995.

Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion. New York: New York University Press, 2002.