In its May 2023 issue, the usually political magazine Commentary published an extensive essay, “The Return of Paganism.” The article’s main point was that ancient pagan practices are returning to use and are embedded in many “modern” movements.
Ancient and Yet Modern
The article opened with an account of the so-called transgender killer who murdered three children and three adults in a Tennessee school on March 27, 2023. The author, Liel Leibovitz, sees a potent element of paganism in that act and its coverage in the mainstream media—the willingness to sacrifice children.
“[Children were] the ultimate offering to the gods—proof that the pagan believer was so certain in his belief that he would offer up his own offspring to show the gods the strength of his faith….”
Mr. Leibovitz seems an unusual candidate to write seriously about paganism. He has a Ph.D. from Columbia University and has written for the notoriously leftist The Nation and The New Republic. He writes a column for the Catholic-friendly journal First Things.
The school shooting in Memphis also seems an unusual one in which to see pagan overtones. That event appears to be thoroughly modern. The word “transgender” was rarely heard until recent years—and until very recently, its antecedents were treated as mental disorders. Never before were these two elements mixed into a single atrocity.
Although paganism is often ignored, it is growing. About 8,000 Americans practiced it in 1990. That number grew to 340,000 by 2008. Today an estimated 1.5 million adherents are “professing an array of pagan persuasions, from Wicca to the Viking lore, making paganism one of the nation’s fastest-growing persuasions.”
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Mr. Leibovitz also provides a key to this growing popularity. “[Paganism] may be distilled to the following principle: Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” That explanation evokes the sixties catchphrases “It is forbidden to forbid” and “Do your own thing.”
Nonetheless, if the Commentary article had a weakness, it was in spending too little space describing what paganism was—or is. While the article did not ignore this aspect totally, it understandably focused on child sacrifice. However, a more comprehensive look at the definition of paganism and its practices makes the connections more understandable.
What is Paganism, Anyway?
The Catholic Encyclopedia both defines and provides a more specific description of paganism.
“Paganism, in the broadest sense, includes all religions other than the true one revealed by God, and, in a narrower sense, all except Christianity, Judaism, and Mohammedanism. The term is also used as the equivalent of Polytheism.
“It is derived from the Latin pagus, whence pagani (i.e., those who live in the country), a name given to the country folk who remained heathen after the cities had become Christian.”
Certain beliefs connect those rural Romans with modern-day urban pagans.
Worshipping the Created, Rather than the Creator
The Catholic Encyclopedia describes several aspects of paganism, the first of which is “totemism.” This is the use of often distorted animal, human or natural symbols to which believers attach significant meaning. An excellent example would be the rainbow—a symbol used by the LGBT movement to represent its demands. There is no actual connection between homosexuality and the meteorological phenomenon.
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In this particular case, there is a double meaning insofar as the homosexuals distorted the sign that God used to tell Noe that He would never again flood the earth. “And the bow shall be in the clouds, and I shall see it, and shall remember the everlasting covenant, that was made between God and every living soul of all flesh which is upon the earth. And God said to Noe: This shall be the sign of the covenant which I have established between me and all flesh upon the earth.” (Genesis 9:16-17.)
Another common belief in modern paganism is animism—attributing the characteristics of the human soul to animals, plants and inanimate objects—like the sun and moon. Today, this is often a feature of many ecologists who attribute “spirits” to trees, rivers, and certain rare plants. Much of the “biodiversity” movement is related to the idea that each plant species contributes something to the earth, even if that “something” is indefinable. The resurgence of druidism in modern life is an outgrowth of the revived spirit of animism.
Dualism is another aspect of ancient paganism that reenters modern life and thought. It teaches that the mind and the body are only peripherally related and that reason is inherently superior to the body. Therefore, the body must be despised, and the “life of the mind” be cherished. Such beliefs were typical of the gnostics, who were unwilling to believe that Our Lord could have taken an actual human form. Today, it is found in many pagan practices derived from Buddhism and Hinduism, which have entered modern life through “new age” teachings and yoga.
As mentioned, much of the Commentary article focused on child sacrifice.
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Unfortunately, the Commentary article all but omitted the most common form of child sacrifice in the world today, procured abortion. Like those ancients who threw their newborns into volcanos to appease the spirits, far too many modern people discard their unborn children in futile attempts to “improve” their own lives.
At the same time, the article does provide other pertinent examples of child sacrifice. How, it asks, does one explain the Covid-related school closures? The fact that children were largely immune to Covid argues strongly that American schools should have remained open, as those in most European countries. In an intensely unsettled time, the regular operation of schools would have done much to reassure our children that life would return to normal. However, the schools closed and stayed closed.
Mr. Leibovitz lists the doleful consequences, “dramatic upticks in juvenile mental-health crises, sharp declines in basic academic proficiency and just about every other metric of human misery visited on our children.”
The article also mentions the propensity of leftist parents and teachers to involve children in their political battles. This point is less solid, but there is evidence in its favor. Many leftist school curricula present “social action” by students as among their primary goals. Companies like Scholastic—the purveyors of innumerable elementary school “book fairs”—create and present whole strains of children’s literature designed to venerate those who protest. One particularly egregious title is Take the Mic: Fictional Stories of Everyday Resistance for ages twelve and up. Anyone who thinks adolescents need to learn to resist has never raised one.
Indeed, despite ignoring procured abortion, this article makes several valid points. The spirit of modern paganism is very much alive today. Humanity’s spiritual enemies are the same as they always were. Satan does not need to fabricate new tools when the old ones work so well.