The return of the Olympic games to Greece, where they originated as a pagan festival honoring the king of the gods, Olympian Zeus, has had neo-pagans all worked up and excited. The games, which got started in 776 B.C., were banned by the Christian emperor Theodosius in 393 BCE on the grounds that they were an offense to the God of biblical monotheism. It’s precisely that fact that endears them to contemporary believers in the ancient gods.
If you’re wondering why this matters — if you weren’t even aware there is a neo-pagan revival going on — you haven’t been paying enough attention to pop culture, or to statistical measures of American religious preferences. You also haven’t considered the implications for our country’s future of the secular face of polytheism: that is, moral relativism, as I will explain.
In 2001, the American Religious Identification Survey, conducted by The City University of New York’s Graduate Center, put the number of Wiccans — modern-day witches who worship a god and a goddess — at 134,000. There were another 140,000 generic self-identified pagans, and 33,000 Druids. Some are “reconstructionists” seeking to revive specific pantheons, such as the Greek one. Enthusiasts include 26-year-old Andrea Berman, profiled on Beliefnet as she geared up to watch the Athens Olympics. Raised “in a nonreligious home by a Jewish father and a Catholic mother,” she one night received a dream visit from Apollo, who told her: “You belong to me.”
I started worrying about this one fine Sunday when I happened upon a Wiccan worship session in a public park in Tacoma, Wash. About 35 people stood around a rock in the center of a circle. Placed beside the rock were cornhusk dolls, flowers, a glass of beer and some wheat stalks — for it is was the sabbat (or festival, from the Hebrew Shabbat) of Lammas, which celebrates the first harvest and the death and rebirth of the god of grain.
The subtler influences of paganism are evident across the culture. You can’t take a plane, train or subway without seeing at least one or two people reading Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code,” 72 weeks at the top of The New York Times best-seller list and counting, a book notable for its admiring treatment of pagan goddess worship. Besides Jesus’ previously undisclosed genetic legacy — he had a wife and child — the other bogus secret related here has to do with how Christianity tragically displaced the wonderful ancient religion of the goddess.
In the course of the novel, Brown includes an awestruck rendition of the pagan Great Rite, the Hieros Gamos or “sacred marriage” — sexual intercourse performed before worshippers, between a man representing the god and a woman representing the goddess. Goddess spirituality, in Brown’s celebratory view, is coming back. “The pendulum is swinging,” his fictional hero, Harvard “symbologist” Robert Langdon prophesied. “We are beginning to sense the need to restore the sacred feminine.”
The Hebrew prophets railed against polytheism, but in a painful irony, it’s often their biological descendants of the Hebrew prophets who take the most aggressive stand in defense of heathen religion. Jonathan Kirsch, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, has now brought forth a solemnly praised book extolling the virtues of ancient paganism, “God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism.”
Why should you care? American polytheism is, of course, simply the religious face of the cultural relativism that has undermined our former certainties in other areas. Since in classical paganism everyone can pick his own personal god, or his own personal pantheon, that means you also may pick your own personal moral system. It follows that no culture’s conception of right and wrong can be definitive. When Wiccans worship their gods, they are only giving an explicitly religious cast to an idea that is accepted by the vast majority of those Americans who consider themselves to be sophisticated and urbane. We are, in this sense, all pagans now.
You should care because a country like ours that doesn’t regard its norms as absolutes — as good and true, and therefore worth defending — will lack the will to defeat those who would terrorize her. The United States is challenged by radical Muslim terrorists whose victory would be an unmitigated curse — say, in the form of a portable nuclear bomb detonated in lower Manhattan. We hear this threat discussed as if the only defense against it were not moral but purely technical — technology to detect radiological traces in cargo containers unloaded at our ports, and that sort of thing.
The biblical prophets, by contrast, saw the best defense as moral, centered on rejecting the worship of false gods. If the curse comes to pass, I’m afraid we will recall Jerry Falwell’s much maligned admonition, after the September 11 terrorist attacks, to American polytheists and other moral relativists: “You helped this happen.”
David Klinghoffer is author of “The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism” (Doubleday & Company, 2003).