Religion has undergone significant transformations over time. Early paganism was rooted in primitive instincts, fears, and perceptions. The Zapotecs of Mesoamerica, for example, practiced human ritual sacrifice as appeasement or supplication to the very real and visible gods around them. There could have been no more powerfully spiritual experience than to witness a sacrificial offering on a high altar in the Valley of Oaxaca surrounded by the watching gods of the mountains.
In many ways paganism was the truest and most profound religion of all. It had yet to be mediated by logic and intellectual proofs. There was no need for grace, belief, or a sophisticated understanding of text, tradition, and wisdom. The gods were immanent, all-powerful, visible, and threatening. Their infinite power, reach, and authority needed no interpretation. Gods and Man were as closely united as never after in the history of religion.
Religion soon lost its pagan innocence. The Early Church Fathers debated the divinity of Christ, the nature of God, the place of Christianity within the context of Judaism and Hellenism, and the right way to salvation. The new canonized philosophy could not be left to Christian believers alone, and soon a network of bishops, priests, and prelates was established. Not long thereafter the Pope became the legitimate heir to Peter, and the ultimate hierarchy was in place.
Martin Luther successfully challenged this institutional hegemony and opened the doors to later evangelism and personal, unmediated salvation. Religion thrived for many centuries on both sides of the Christian divide; and until very recently religion was strong, healthy, and growing in America. The pews were filled.
Yet, something has happened, and religion is fading as an important social institution. Not only is it no longer providing the spiritual support that believers have long sought, but it is absent as a guide for important social decisions.
Peter Beinart writing in The Atlantic notes:
Over the past decade, pollsters charted something remarkable: Americans—long known for their piety—were fleeing organized religion in increasing numbers. The vast majority still believed in God. But the share that rejected any religious affiliation was growing fast, rising from 6 percent in 1992 to 22 percent in 2014. Among Millennials, the figure was 35 percent.Everyone – black, white, conservative, and liberal – have disengaged from religion. Faith no longer animates civil rights movements like Black Lives Matter as it did Martin Luther King’s early crusades. In fact BLM leaders were openly suspicious of religious institutional support.
Conservative whites, even those in the South are leaving organized religion at a surprising pace (Republicans with no religious affiliation has nearly tripled since 1990), and the influence of traditional faith-based political movements has waned. Non-churchgoing conservatives respond more to the secular issues of marginalization, disaffection, and anger raised by Donald Trump.
While there is no doubt that the political engagement of Southern fundamentalist conservatives is determined to a large degree by religion, and their opposition to gay marriage, abortion, and religious rights based on Biblical interpretation, the Religious Right is far less of an influence than it was just a few decades ago.
Beinart notes that in 1990, according to PRRI, slightly more than half of white liberals seldom or never attended religious services. Today the proportion is 73 percent. The issues of most concern – race, gender, ethnicity, and the environment – are purely secular; and while some Catholics have followed Pope Francis’ call for a respect for all life, they are committed to environmentalism on social and economic grounds.
What happened? There are many obvious but facile reasons – the sex abuse scandals of the Catholic Church, the defrocking of popular televangelists, the outright politicization of religion by The Moral Majority and other faith-based groups, millennial materialism, and the excesses of radical Islam. None of these are enough to explain what is a wholesale abandonment of institutional religion.
Perhaps paganism holds the answer. Modern church services – even ecstatic Pentecostal and Charismatic ones – are tame, diluted versions of those of the Zapotecs. The transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ at the Consecration of the Catholic Mass is the closest ritual modern religion has to paganism; but it is a pale recreation of the the real sacrifice of the Zapotecs.
Marlow, the narrator of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness refers to ‘unspeakable rites’, primitive ceremonies in which Kurtz took part. Although Conrad never says what these rites are, some critics, most notably Stephen A. Reid, suggests that they are ritual sacrifices in which young men are sacrificed and their flesh consumed to ensure the longevity of a tribe’s increasingly old and infirm god.
Ethnologist Sir George James Frazer, based on his study of isolated tribes in the Congo, wrote that such spiritual investiture was important:
For if the man-god dies of what we call a natural death, it means…that his soul has either voluntarily departed from the body and refuses to return; or more commonly that it has been extracted or at least detained in its wanderings, by a demon or sorcerer. In any of these cases the soul of the dying god is lost to his worshipers, and with it their prosperity is gone and their very existence endangered.Such paganism is primitive, bestial, and uniformed, never having had the benefit of highly evolved religions and their sophisticated theologies. Human sacrifice can never be condoned regardless of its integrity to a native cosmology. Kurtz’s participation in and encouragement of ritual sacrifice and cannibalism was heinous and immoral because he knew better. The tribesmen were unconcerned by the loss of one life when it meant general survival and prosperity.
It is no wonder that church attendance has dropped especially for traditional religions. Many mainline Protestant churches have adopted social activism as a principle of religious faith. While they still respect the theology and traditions of their more conservative ancestors, they are more meeting houses where like-minded people can share commitment and social ideals.
The Catholic Church in its ‘democratic’ reforms has so squeezed the mystery and passion out of the faith, that it is neither fish nor fowl. Priests still celebrate the transubstantiation, the miraculous incarnation of Jesus Christ on the altar, but without the pomp, ceremony, and mystery of the Mass. The Orthodox Church has retained much of the more ancient mystical ceremonies, but the Catholic Church has blended secularism, traditionalism, and pale ritual into an unappealing event.
It is no surprise that store-front churches with their unrestrained, no-holds-barred, ecstatic and highly individualized religious passion are growing in number as attendance at traditional churches declines.
It is also no surprise that New Age religions still have a hold on many who have left church but who still need something to fill the void unfilled by secularism.
It is no surprise whatsoever that social movements have become secular religions. Environmentalism has become a religion. It has a doctrine, a litany, a creed, an apocalyptic revelation, and millions of true believers. Secularism may be devoid of religion but it has not escaped it. Still, it is but a tepid version of earlier religious expression let alone paganism.
Can it possibly be that religion is indeed dying out? That people are quite happy and fulfilled within their secular lives?
Doubtful. If history has shown us anything, it is that religion has always been an inescapable, ineluctable feature of human society. It has provided the social glue, the standards and enforcement of morality, and the hope of salvation in a better world for millions. Most of all it has provided an ecstatic experience that nothing secular could ever approximate.
More than likely in this century when the mind and the computer have been fully integrated and that virtuality replaces reality, people will look for ecstatic, even pagan spiritual experience. Why not? In a virtual world where traditional rules do not apply, where social constraints are not in force, and where the mind can truly wander in fantastical worlds of one’s own creation, why shouldn’t spiritual ecstasy be on offer?
For the time being we either routinely go to church, pray, or celebrate important religious festivals; enroll in secular religious movements like environmentalism or social justice; or simply muddle through until we realize that finally we will have to come to some accommodation with death and what follows. Then we may turn to some pagan rejuvenation. God is real and He is close!
Church pews may be empty, but religion is not dead. There is no possible way that a life devoid of pagan ecstasy can be satisfactory for long.