Steven Smith (who has occasionally favored us with comments here at T&S) is not the first to describe our current cultural moment as a new conflict between pagans and Christians. As Smith describes at length in Pagans and Christians in the City, others, on both sides of the divide, have done so using the same language. Smith does argue quite convincingly, however, that this new conflict of pagan vs. Christian is not merely an apt metaphor, but a sober description of the American religious landscape.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. For decades, the secularization hypothesis has been predicting that American religious exceptionalism would gradually decline and converge on Western European-style secularism, and the rise of the religiously unaffiliated has seemed to be the belated arrival of this long-awaited secularization.
This is, as Smith insistently points out, nonsense. Secularism – actual natural scientific secularism, the “unyielding despair” of Bertrand Russell that is the only option for creatures who recognize in themselves Stephen Hawking’s “chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet” – continues to have very few adherents. Your secular neighbors might think of themselves as rigorously scientific, but in nearly all cases they hold (good and commendable) values that are best described as religious. Smith argues that what we see instead of unsparing secularism is a re-emergence of the paganism of classical antiquity – not of the gods and goddesses and satyrs chasing about of myth, but of the philosophical paganism favored by educated Romans that sacralized the grandeur of nature, or the order of the cosmos, or the destiny of the empire, or the glory of the emperor, or the joy of sex. Just like those cultivated patricians, most people today accept various values not derivable from scientific secularism: human rights, environmental protection, the primacy of a nation or tribe. These are the self-evident values of respected and educated people, and they are values firmly rooted in this world.
What distinguishes paganism and Christianity is their basic orientation. Paganism sacralizes the immanent (in such religious assertions as the equal value of all human beings, or the fundamental beauty of the earth), while Christianity (and Judaism and Islam, among others) sacralizes the transcendent. The creator God may have entered this world in human form, but he is radically outside and prior to the world in a way that the pagan gods (and pagan values) are not.
Roman paganism easily incorporated gods and rituals from across the ancient world, but it was never able to ingest the transcendent religions of Judaism and Christianity. Christianity’s transcendent focus gave it an investment in truth claims that was a perpetual irritant to an official paganism that hardly worried which myths were true, which gods were real, or which rites were superior. The divide between Christianity and the various forms of paganism was especially vast when it came to matters of sexuality; Christians insisted on chastity rooted in transcendent values and divine teaching, while any good Roman knew that limiting men’s sexual outlets to their lawful wives was unhealthy. Christianity certainly recognized that human beings and nature could reflect the greatness of God, but to worship the spark of divinity in another human being, even in the emperor, would be to fall into idolatry.
Following the official triumph of Christianity, paganism did not entirely disappear. The vigorous heritage of classical antiquity included a strain of continued respect for pagan ideals and, eventually, resentment toward their suppression by Christianity.
Pagans and Christians in the City is clearly written, engaging, and convincing. Above all, it shows how today’s cultural wars are merely the second act of a conflict that played out in the third and fourth centuries. Each side was willing to compromise, but only in ways that the other side could not possibly accept without giving away the store. Christians were of course welcome to worship however they wanted – as long as they recognized, by their sacrifices to the emperor, that God was just one god among many. Christians countered that they would render unto Caesar and offer prayers for the emperor – but they could only offer their prayers to the one true God. Today, the bargain offered to Christians is that they may worship as they please – as long as it doesn’t interfere with politics or the marketplace or anything else in public view. Christians, for their part, are happy to be good citizens, if only people will recognize that their commitments based on transcendent religion are legitimate and prior to any merely human concern.
And this is depressing and alarming, because the last time Christianity went head to head with paganism, it led to hideous outbreaks of bloody persecution for centuries on end.