The recent plethora of books by militant atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens is beginning to generate a good deal of return fire from people writing within the Christian tradition, either as sophisticated adherents or writers recognizing that on balance our society benefited from it rather more than it lost.  Christopher Hedges’ I Don’t Believe in Atheists  is a wonderful take down of Sam Harris in particular and a powerful argument that the militant atheists are replicating much that they find most objectionable in the religious traditions they deplore.  I was recently sent a review of two other recent books Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith and Revolution,   and David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies.  in Nathan Schneider’s essay “Reclaiming Religion”   in the American Prospect.  

I think we NeoPagans have something of value to add to this debate about the social value of religion. (This is a mini-essay)

Further, we are adding it even as I write these words.  Each paragraph that follows could probably be a book, but I want to get my ideas out before my book on the 60s, Culture War, and Divine Feminine is done.

Christian Contributions

I will begin with what I believe to be the most important Christian contribution to our society, although the idea did not originate with them, many trashed it in practice, and their contribution might be a little different than many believe.  But when the final weighing occurs, crucial Christians played a vital role.

The old Pagan world had many strengths, but except for some philosophers and their followers the ideal of universal equality was not one of them.  Take slavery.  The writings and practices of some of the elite certainly opposed slavery.  Aristotle referred to some unnamed opponents in his defense of the institution, and we know that Pythagoras opposed it.  But their views were always of a small minority, and the more challenging view that all people are morally equal appears less often, although it was prominent in Stoicism.  Stoics and other Pagans of the time often acknowledged there was no deep difference in nature between freemen and slaves, but accepted the institution as a necessity.  At most, they humanized it over time.  

More often, the classical Pagans had a deep sense of deep differences between social classes.  For example, when I was reading the last Pagan Emperor Julian’s Against the Galileans   along with a great many valid points was Julian’s enormous contempt for any religion followed chiefly by women and slaves.  This taken-for-granted elitism stuck out like a sore thumb.  He sincerely attempted to shift Pagan practice in the direction of greater charity, and had he lived might have succeeded, but he didn’t.  Significantly, Julian’s attempt on this matter was inspired by the Christian example.

Some early Christians were strong critics of slavery as well, though only one comes down to us, Gregory of Nyssa, often described as to eastern Orthodoxy what Augustine was to Western Christianity.  But this opposition led nowhere.

Further, when Baptist Christian missionaries entered the American South in search of souls, they shifted from being opponents of slavery to its defenders and justifiers.  White souls were apparently more important than Black ones.  All too few people, Pagan or Christian, have let deep ethical issues undermine their devotion to Mammon.  In this case the Southern Baptist Convention was the outgrowth of Northern Baptist accommodation with slavery.  

So I see nothing intrinsic in Christianity as a whole that led to expanding human equality.  But I think stopping here sells the Christian influence short.  What Christianity did do was maintain a respected language of universal respect and love that lay ready to hand when it began to be economically feasible to better implement these principles.  The same Christian traditions that had been active in leading to slavery’s end were also disproportionately active in other movements spreading and institutionalizing human equality under the law.  Later liberal churchmen risked, and sometimes lost, their lives in seeking racial equality in the South during the Civil rights Movement.  Few whites other than college students took similar risks.

I think genuine Christians can take well deserved pleasure in knowing their tradition contributed more than any other to this important realization.  I will not explore the down side because most of my readers know it, and I have a more positive message to present.

NeoPagan Contributions?
Are NeoPagans making potentially similarly important contributions?  Are we addressing unmet spiritual, moral, and social needs?  We have to be tentative here. As a public presence we are only a little more than 50 years old.  Christianity is 2000 years old.  Even so, I think we can give a strong ‘yes’ to this question.

What ultimately became Christianity’s most positive contribution to humanity as a whole characterized it from the first.  Pagan society was impressed by their emphasis on charity, and women and slaves in particular, by the ideal of equality under God.  The horrors Christianity is also associated with came later, as church leaders were seduced by power, status, and wealth, and the laity was persuaded to follow them.  

What has stood out about us NeoPagans from the very beginning?

The Feminine
Women and the Divine Feminine have always received recognition as spiritually and in every other way the equal of men and of masculine conceptions of the Sacred.  This balanced view that apparently characterized pre-agricultural peoples had died out with its rise and the cities that followed, leading to the family based hierarchies of wealth and power they made possible.

From the very beginning, with the rise of  Gardnerian Covens in the 1950s, NeoPagans have emphasized the feminine in all its forms.  Especially through the work of Starhawk this focus spread to inspire women theologians who came of age in the 60s, and have attempted to work within their own traditions.  As I read accounts from women like Buddhist Rita Gross, Catholic Rosemary Radford Ruether, and former Christian Carol Christ Starhawk’s name appears again and again as pivotal or inspirational.  As a community we are small but growing in numbers, but small as we are, we have already had an enormous impact on the larger spiritual community outside conservative backwaters.

Women and men, the feminine and the masculine, are not the same, and the ideas of equality that arose from the Christian and later liberal and socialist traditions, almost without exception were masculine visions of abstract equality. Women could be just as good as men in male terms.  As abstract individuals women were to be equal, but as women they were not because the qualities with which women were more strongly linked than men, the feminine, were systematically devalued.

Our focus on the Goddess and the God, and their various aspects or dimensions, or manifestations, and on the earth around us, left abstract argument behind for celebrating our encounter with immanent expressions of the Divine.  That the ‘culture war’ is so often put in gendered terms b y its advocates  is evidence that those most threatened by us see this very clearly.

Our turn to the Divine Immanent from the Divine Transcendent , to the Sacred in the world rather than above it has led to experiencing the resacralization of Nature.  This perspective was not entirely absent in the Christian tradition, any more than the ideal of equality was absent in the Pagan.  I am especially impressed with the Orthodox on this issues, as I learn more about them.  But among Christians it was a minor theme, especially in the West, where focus was on salvation from this vale of tears., or at most a focus only on the human world.

We are helping to provide a framework for the intuition and experiences countless people have had that our world is more than a resource pile for corporate greed or a fallen place.  We live in a sacred home and need to treat it as such.  

I think we have more in common in this respect with hunting and gathering Pagans than the agricultural ones who came later, pushing them to the periphery even before the coming of the monotheists.  Agricultural peoples are much more vulnerable to natural cycles and fluctuations, and so seek to control nature rather than living in harmony with it.  This seems especially the case when cities first rose.    Now most of us do not ‘battle the elements’ for survival and man
y Pagan and semi-Pagan farmers I know emphasize harmony with the land over control of it.

As with slavery in the 19th Century, society no longer can claim it needs to treat the earth as a pile of stuff valuable only in its service to us.

There is a step forward spiritually here from almost any perspective.  Recognition of more concrete kinds of respect, especially in relation to women and the feminine, and the resacralization of nature, bring serious spiritual practice closer to love, for true love can only be for the concrete.  In my opinion we reflect a spiritual step forwards from monotheistic universalism, although we build upon its platform.  We are able to take for granted the moral equality that our spiritual ancestors, trapped in slave societies, could only rarely intuit.

And We Share in Another
As part of the great blossoming of religious paths emerging from the creative matrix of the 60s, I think we are a part of a new spiritual development in the West.  We are helping develop a kind of spiritual cultural ecology.  

In my view, no religious tradition can adequately reflect every important aspect of the sacred equally well.  Each has its stronger sides, and each has its blind or at least undeveloped spots.   Even within any given tradition there is always still more variation, as people shape it to fit their felt needs, even as it shapes them.

If we can learn respect for one another, and perhaps even affection, we might serve as mutual checks and balances on one another.  Whenever some significant portion of a spiritual community goes loony tunes the pressure and disapproval of its neighbors will help give confidence to other members of that community to seek a return to spiritual sanity.  This is the gift of spiritual pluralism, which I believe we are well situated to strengthen because unlike most monotheistic traditons we do not proselytize and do not believe our way is best for all.

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