In the previous post, I outlined a model of prestige and stigma which predicts whether a language or religion will grow or wither in a society. Now let’s take the prestige/stigma model and look at Neopaganism today. By these measures, Neopaganism is in trouble.
Imagine trying to revive the Latin language. Imagine speaking it at home, teaching it to your children, seeking out Latin translations of modern works, and using it instead of English whenever you could. What would your friends and neighbors think? Do you think lots of people would jump on the bandwagon with you? Do you think that the revived Latin movement — “Neolatinism” — would have much of a future in your society? There are no celebrities speaking Latin on TV. There are no government officials speaking Latin in press conferences. Latin is stigmatized as a dead language with no future; why would anyone want to learn it?
If the analogy between religion and language holds, Neopaganism is in exactly the same situation as Neolatinism would be.
Firstly, there are of course very few figures in public life in the West who are openly pagan. There are some lesser-known rock bands, some lesser-known actors and actresses… But no one who is likely to affect public perception in any great way. Certainly there are no open pagans in the US government; such a thing would probably be even more abhorrent than homosexuality to America’s heartland. Matters are a little better in Britain — William Roache I believe is a druid, and the population in general is more open-minded about these matters — but the outlook is still bleak.
Is Neopaganism prestigious? If so, I haven’t seen any evidence of it. Even liberal, socially sensitive individuals have been known to casually and thoughtlessly disparage paganism as one practiced by uneducated or uncivilized people. And here in open-minded western Massachusetts, people who learn of my religion usually respond with something like “What? Why?”, wearing an expression of barely-concealed incredulous astonishment. For most people, the idea of believing in Zeus, Odin, or the Goddess is not just stigmatized, it’s patently absurd.
And Neopaganism is not associated with any larger anti-establishment movement, as Christianity came to be in the Roman Empire. There are plenty of anti-establishment movements in the world today, and they’re associated with a multitude of belief systems, many of which are in fact varieties of Christianity. It’s true that there’s apocryphal evidence that Neopaganism enjoys some cachet among those who want to rebel against the more stolid forms of Christianity, but the same can be said of Satanism and atheism; and anyway that kind of conversion tends to die with age and experience, alongside the desire to shock your parents.
So the outlook for Neopaganism looks very bad indeed. And yet…
…And yet Neopaganism is growing. In fact, growth figures from surveys and censuses (censi?) in Ausrtalia and the UK indicate that the growth rate is very fast. In 2006, for example, one survey in Australia reported a stunning growth rate of about 130% — far beyond any other religion in the country — although other figures indicate more modest (but still impressive) growth. Numbers for the US are harder to come by, but the most conservative estimates peg us at about a million adherents, orders of magnitude above what it was a few decades ago.
So the religion/language analogy seems to predict that Neopaganism should be dying the death of minority languages everywhere; but instead it appears to be growing rapidly. In fact, for three hundred years, paganism has been slowly staging a revival in the West even as Christianity has lost its status as The Religion of the state and the culture. How can this be?
Well, either the religion/language analogy is imperfect in this respect, or something deeper is going on.
Not All Religions are Created Equal
I tend to think it’s unlikely that the religion/language analogy has broken down here. After all, the generalization we’re extending — that both religion and language grow and spread, or wither and die, based on prestige and stigmatism — doesn’t only apply to these social constructs; it applies to all social constructs. Whether it’s a new hairstyle, a popular jacket, or a new catchphrase, stigma kills and prestige enlivens. So there’s no reason to think that religion is any different.
I suggest a closer look at the religion/language analogy. As I’ve written about elsewhere, not all languages are the same, and not all religions are the same. For example, in this earlier post, I tried to motivate a distinction between older, organic religions and newer, revealed religions. In brief:
Organic religions tend to be:
- very very old (usually too ancient to even date)
- frequently non-dogmatic and self-contradictory
- incorporating elements of shamanism and animism
- reflecting elements borrowed from other religions in contact situations
- comfortable to the human mind and instinctively learned by children
- representing the accreted wisdom of hundreds of generations of a culture
Revealed religions tend to be:
- relatively young (8000 years or less)
- mono- or duotheistic or even atheistic
- frequently written down and codified
- sometimes arcane in theory, and unintuitive to children
- representing the wisdom of a small number of individuals who have received divine insight
In terms of the religion/language analogy, organic religions are much like human languages, which are also generally extremely old, full of exceptions and self-contradictions built up over eons of linguistic contact, learned easily by children, and enriched by generations of poets and speakers. Revealed religions are more like constructed languages, such as computer languages or Lojban, being young, rigorous and self-consistent, codified and pure, learned with difficulty by children, and usually created by a small number of people. Note that this isn’t a cut-and-dried distinction: as a religion (or a language) ages, it will tend to become less “revealed” and more “organic” in character, although this can be mitigated by written rules that are preserved for generations (e.g. the Bible, Webster’s).
The Fall of Latin
Now consider what happened when Latin lost its place of pre-eminence among the literate class of Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. Latin is a natural language, but by the 1600s, it was used only in a fossilized, rigid, strict form modeled after the language of Cicero and other classical writers. With the Reformation, and the damaged reputation of the Catholic church, Latin was taken down from its perch, and the new national languages of Europe rose up to replace it — despite the fact that fossilized Latin was prestigious, easy (for adults) to learn, already known to all literate adults, and served as a very effective lingua franca. When Latin was no longer enforced by the church, all these advantages were tossed aside… because the natural languages were easier.
Around the same time that Latin lost its official sanction, a revolution was occurring in European education. The proportion of the population that wanted to be educated and literate (and could afford to pay for the privilege) was expanding rapidly, and new schools were opening across the continent to serve the need. In these new schools, Latin wasn’t the core of the entire curriculum, as it had been in Europe for a thousand years. Instead, classes were taught in the new national languages, because it was so much easier and faster. And who really needed Latin anyway? Sure, there was plenty of sentimental attachment to Latin, and there were two thousand years of classic works of science, religion, and esoteric learning written in Latin sitting in European libraries and monasteries. But for the average moderately wealthy European paying through the nose for every hour of education, Latin just wasn’t worth the investment.
The Fall of Christianity?
So if I’m right, as Christianity is falling from the official halls of power — as it is no longer taught in schools, and as church non-attendance loses its social stigma — there is a rising demand for simpler, more intuitive religious systems. This doesn’t mean paganism specifically; but it does mean organic — intuitive, without a lot of dogma, great stories that children love, and polytheistic — in feel, if not in absolute fact. Notice that in many American families that have abandoned Christianity, they still put up Christmas trees, hide Easter eggs, and so forth. For the young children in the household, the “religion” they’re being raised with has a polytheistic feel (Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, Jack Frost), and it resonates with them. Among adults, the organic religions now rising include the whole kaleidoscope of New Age belief, as well as the many people who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious”.
This is not to say that Christianity is as doomed as Latin was. On the contrary: Christianity will grow and thrive to the extent that it adapts to become more organic. Organic forms of Christianity — non-dogmatic, intuitive forms — should do quite well in this environment. I also think that varieties with an air of polytheism will grow — i.e. those that offer an emphasis on angels, saints, or other guardian spirits.
The Organic (Religion) Marketplace
Of course, the religion/language analogy does break down, and it breaks because religion is not just a language spoken between individuals, but a language spoken between individuals and Spirit. A religion can be living, thriving, even if it has only one human “speaker”, because Spirit “speaks” the language as well; and everyone can create their own individual Language of Spirit. My guess is that Christianity and the religions that ‘compete’ with it will grow into a state of dynamic equilibrium, not unlike the languages of modern Europe, in which one sees coexistance, contact, exchange, and mutual enrichment. Christianity may maintain a position rather like English and French do in Europe — a sort of dogma franca: everyone will be familiar with its basic tenets, and it may serve as a common point of comparison. But there is no danger of it taking over the whole society again.
So in my view, the relaxation of Christian hegemony, which has allowed Neopaganism and other belief systems to revive and grow, will not result in the destruction of Christianity, nor yet the triumph of pagan religions. Instead, we are seeing a religious Renaissance, in which the explosive growth of belief systems is akin to the multiplication of languages at the Tower of Babel. And just as at the Tower, the religious community in the West has splintered, and will continue to splinter. But because Spirit speaks to all, the religious Renaissance need not isolate individuals from each other. Instead, by strengthening the relationship between the individual and the Eternal, the Renaissance will in turn build and strengthen relations between individuals and religions. It is a consummation devoutly to be wished.