Modern religions that are derived from or inspired by the indigenous polytheistic traditions of Europe (I’ll call them Neopagan) have experienced a great resurgence in the last couple of hundred years, and especially in the last fifty or so. This is surprising, because prior to that, everyone pretty much thought they were gone for good.
Their decline started with the influx of Christianity during the time of the Roman Empire, and during the early middle ages they were effectively erased. Of course, undercurrents of pagan-inspired culture and thought could not be removed entirely, and frequently survived as superstitions, holiday traditions, or even dressed-up church doctrine; but certainly as living, growing, open traditions, they were finished. It was only when Western thought was loosened up by the Renaissance, and given wings in the ages of Reason and the Enlightenment, that it became more socially acceptable for people in Europe to start poking around with non-Christian belief systems again. Alongside atheism, agnosticism, and non-specific spiritualities, Neopaganism became more popular as Christianity lost its grip on philosophy.
Nowadays there are more pagans in Western society than there have been for fifteen hundred years, but there still aren’t very many. Adherents.com suggests that there might be about three million of us worldwide — slightly larger than the population of Chicago, but not as big as Los Angeles. Anecdotal evidence suggests that our numbers continue to grow, fueled especially by the educational and networking opportunities created by the internet, but how fast we’re growing is anybody’s guess.
Predicting the future of the movement — given the uncertainties of its current situation, the complexities of the social forces in the world today, the unknown effects of technology, and the unfathomable purposes of the gods themselves — is surely a fool’s errand. Only an idiot would even attempt it.
So I figured I’d give it a shot.
The Tools of Prognostication
In other articles I’ve written at some length about the similarities between religion and language. While the correspondences between them are not perfect, there are a lot of common features. Thus:
- They’re both frequently associated with ethnic groups
- They are learned by children and used throughout life (and the one you learn in childhood has a powerful effect on how you learn others as an adult)
- They are distinctive, both defining and defined by the cultures that use them
- They are uniquely human
- They change over time.
If you look deeper, you see even more similarities. A language, after all, is not just a list of words; it also consists of rules governing how those words may be combined to create meaning. Similarly, a religion defines a set of rules governing interactions between humanity and Spirit. A speech act (like a sentence) is rule-governed behavior; the rules of the language define which words are allowed, how you can put them together, and what they mean when you follow the rules. A religious act is similarly rule-governed – the religion defines the underlying concepts and tenets that must be accepted, the actions required for a ritual, and what it all means.
The nice thing about this analogy is that a lot more is known about language than is known about religion. For example, sociolinguistics — the study of language in society — and historical linguistics — the study of language change over time — are well-developed fields, with excellent track records. It might be worthwhile to take some insights from these studies and see if we can apply them to the social status and development of Neopaganism.
Prestige and Stigma
Predicting the future of language development is not a simple matter, but there are some basic factors that we know have a lot of influence on the process. Without doubt, the very best predictor of the health of a language is the social status of its speakers. If the language is spoken by people with prestige — whether it be government officials, popular leaders, rock stars, whatever — the language has a bright future. If not, the language will likely be crowded out by competitors that are spoken by prestigious speakers.
A variation on this theme is the prestige of the language itself. Sometimes, using a language or dialect confers prestige on the speaker — e.g. using a British accent in America, or Latin in the Roman Empire. The opposite is also true, of course: some languages or dialects are stigmatized, and stigmatize their speakers — e.g. the Southern American accent. Of course, some languages may be prestigious in some societies and stigmatized in others, e.g. Black English (African-American Vernacular English). All other things being equal, a language will grow in socieities in which it is prestigious, and shrink in societies in which it is stigmatized.
Note that “society” here can be defined along geographical lines, class lines, racial and ethnic lines, etc. A single language may be shrinking in a geographical area, while growing in certain class strata.
Thus: to predict the future of a religion, we should look at the extent to which it is practiced publicly by prestigious individuals. We should also look at the extent to which the religion is itself prestigious, or stigmatized.
Example: Christianity in the Roman Era
Let’s take an example that might seem to be a counterexample at first blush. In the first three centuries AD, Christianity went from a fringe religion — unofficial and definitely stigmatized — to the dominant, official religion of the Roman Empire. How did this happen? According to the model I’ve outlined so far, Christianity should never have spread outside of Judea.
The Romans were extremely tolerant of other religions — generally, foreign pantheons were simply “mapped” to existing or known Roman dieties, and religious observances were permitted to go on according to local custom. In fact, religious observance was considered essential to the cohesion of society and the state. Christianity, which was quite explicitly anti-state (not least because the Roman Emperor was not worshipped), was therefore officially stigmatized.
It has been claimed (mostly in history books that are rather out-of-date now) that Christianity replaced paganism in the Empire because paganism was “tired”, or because people were generally skeptical of it anyway and were looking for something new, or because people were impressed by the faith of the martyred Chrisitians. Given the extremely slow advance of Christianity in the Empire (380 years before it became official, at which time pagans still outnumbered Christians in the Empire, and many many more years before paganism was eradicated, as shown by the need for draconian laws against paganism over the next hundred years), these explanations seem unlikely.
A more likely explanation is that, along a different social dimension, Christianity was actually prestigious.
Among those who were dissatisfied with Roman rule — of which there were quite a number — Christianity represented a principled rejection of the Emperor, who was officially a god. Growth of Christianity among this group was extremely slow, especially during the first couple of hundred years, during which the Empire was strongest; but as the troubles grew, and the Empire weakened through internal and external strife, Christianity locked into the dissatisfaction and became more popular.
It was not until the early 300’s that Christianity was fully legalized, and 50 years later it was the official state religion. This did not mean that Christianity was accepted by the entire population of the Empire; on the contrary, the Empire had a great deal of trouble to stamp out pagan practices in its territory. However, it was necessary to do so. The Emperor was no longer officially a god himself, so where did his right to rule come from? From the claim that he was appointed by God, and the blessing of the Pope; so the citizenry had to accept Christianity to recognize his divine right to rule. At this point, with social prestige of the highest order, the spread of Christianity throughout Roman lands (and wherever Roman armies marched, and wherever Roman culture was esteemed) was assured.
In the next article in this series, I’ll take the prestige/stigma model and look at Neopaganism today. (Sneak Preview: by these measures, Neopaganism is in trouble.)