The New Paganism: Ross Douthat, Sam Harris and the Need for Ritual

 Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat recently wrote about something other than the myriad scandals and absurdities forming the ballast of opinion and news writing these days. The column,  “The Return of Paganism,” reflected a thoughtful analysis of some emerging trends in the religious-spiritual practices of Americans, and whether those trends may be cohering into a new religion.

It was spurred by a new book from University of San Diego  law professor Steven D. Smith, “Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars From the Tiber to the Potomac.” The thesis is that the term “paganism” may describe an emerging, post-Judeo-Christian American religion.  The idea is that divinity is of this world, not outside of it.  My mom was way ahead of these guys. When I was about 10 years old I asked her the sort of questions a 10-year-old asks about “God” and “Heaven” and was gently advised that it was up to us to find heaven ourselves in this world rather than looking to something beyond.  This occurred within a family where basic Jewish traditions and rituals were observed. My family embraced, albeit informally, the Reconstructionist approach to observance (I only realized this later), which evolved from the work of Conservative Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan in the 1930s.  (Kaplan wrote several influential books including “Judaism Without Supernaturlism,” and “Judaism As a Civilization: Toward a Reconstruction of American Jewish Life.”)

But back to the new paganism.  Douthat takes issue with Smith’s thesis  that a new combination of intellectual pantheism and civil religion is evolving into a new paganism as “a faith unto itself.”  This is wrong, writes Douthat, because this new paganism lacks “a set of popular devotions, a practice of ritual and prayer of the kind that the paganism of antiquity offered in abundance.”  The fundamental weakness of this new paganism is that it asks people to “commune with a universe that offers suffering and misery in abundance, which means it has a strong appeal to the privileged but a much weaker appeal to people who need not only a sense of wonder from their spiritual lives” but help. This brings to mind the old adage that “there are no atheists in foxholes.”

I think he is on to something here. I have, over the  years, sought to find a community where my own scientific worldview and deep sense of wonder at the miracle of Creation as seen in nature and in human creativity is wed with ritual,  and where acting to make the world a better place is a central value. And, I am sorry to say, I have never found a community where science and the spirit of scientific inquiry is integrated into an activist pantheistic paganism.  Rather, I have repeatedly bumped up against people who embrace superstition, have no grasp of how science, particularly epidemiology, works, and who are prone to conspiracy theories and political apathy. My experience with psychedelics, including on one occasion 5-MeO DMT under the guidance of a shaman in Mexico, have caused me to take very seriously the idea that consciousness is something inherent in the cosmos, not merely an emergent phenomenon of the neurons in our brain.  While this has strengthened my conviction that we are morally obligated to act for positive change, many others seem only to engage in more intense naval-gazing after such experiences.

Atheist neuroscientist-philosopher Sam Harris, author of “Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion,” is a materialist who nonetheless sees consciousness as a conundrum that may be inexplicable within the current reductionist paradigm.  Philosopher David Chalmers posits panpsychism–that consciousness is an irreducible property of the universe–that everything has an element of consciousness.  While he has gone head-to-head with other philosophers who disagree on this point, all agree that consciousness is what makes meaning possible. (Here is Chalmers’ TED talk on this topic and an illuminating podcast with Harris and Chalmers.)

I think human beings are hard-wired for ritual, and we are hard-wired to seek a sense of connection and community.  In the past, many Americans met those needs within traditional religious observance. In the closing paragraph of his column, Douthat expresses relief that the new paganism has continued to fall short in providing a coherent set of rituals and community that can displace traditional religion. Until a new “harmonized paganism” emerges, writes Douthat, “those of us who still believe in a divine that made the universe rather than just pervading it–and who have a certain fear of what  more immanent spirits have to offer us–should be able to recognize the outlines of a possible successor to our world-picture, while taking comfort that it is not yet fully formed.”  While I can empathize with this sentiment, I do not share it.  A new, coherent spirituality that embraces science, a sense of wonder in the natural world, and a moral framework for caring for the planet and all sentient beings is much needed. Let us hope that is, indeed, emerging.

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