A group of pagans in Iceland will be building a temple to the Norse gods, Thor, Odin, and Frigg. You can read about it here. Over the past few generations there has been a general fascination with the occult, and in the past few decades Wicca and similar “nature” based religions have been growing in popularity. This neo-paganism has recently began looking to the gods of old, or at least it is now more prominent in the eyes and ears of mainstream culture. However, is the new paganism actually able to hold water in the modern age? I am inclined to say, “no”.
The primary problem for neo-paganism is that it isn’t pagan. It is an imitation reenacted by atheists and agnostics. At best some of it’s adherents fall under the vague category of spiritualists. Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson, the “high priest” of Asatruarfelagio, said, “I don’t believe anyone believes in a one-eyed man [Odin] who is riding about on a horse with eight feet.” He continues, “We see the stories as poetic metaphors and a manifestation of the forces of nature and human psychology.” Since this “high priest” uses the pronoun “we”, I assume that he too sees the stories in this manner and does not actually believe in any of the Norse gods to whom he is suppose to be directing worship. In this scenario there is no substance. There is nothing on which the “religion” is founded. There is no worship of God or even a false god; there is only worship of the self, of human psychology, and the self as a part of the natural world. It is a religion without faith. This is an experiment that has been tried many times, and it fails every time.
While fascination with the occult, Wicca, nature religions, and Far Eastern spiritualities has persisted, Western people have been reluctant to actually give themselves to these religions as they come and go out of fashion. Among secularists this trend is even more pronounced. As indicated above, they do not actually believe. Religious practice and symbolism without religious faith is an empty shell that leads only to spiritual death. We have already seen this is Russia. The communist government took note of the great negative effect a lack of religion (due to their suppression of it) had on the people. In response to this, the government began to imitate the Christian religion that was in the blood of the its citizens. I remember walking in Vladivostok and being very surprised to see a memorial to a dead soldier that looked very much like an impersonal Pieta or Lady of Consolation. The soldier was lying at the woman’s feet. The woman (representing Russia) was robed in the manner that Mary the Theotokos often is, and the woman was standing with arms out in a cruciform. The religious symbolism was blatant, but it was from the communist era. I asked our guide about this (a man in his 40’s, born and raised in Russia). He spoke of the communists using religious styled art to tap into that part of the people in an attempt to fill the hole left by the suppression of religion. It didn’t work.
Why does this not work, and by extension why will neo-paganism not work? The experience of the ancient Greeks can, I think, shed light on this current time. In The Feast of Faith, Joseph Ratzinger speaks of the state of pagan religions in relation to Greek philosophy.
Greek philosophy had come to the conclusion that it was impossible to pray to God, since the Eternal One, by being eternal, cannot enter into time relations. This led to such an utter separation of philosophy and religion, of reason and piety, that it heralded the end of ancient religion. (p. 17)
A few pages later he says:
But if they cannot communicate with one another, that is, if there cannot be a reciprocal influence between time [man] and eternity [God], then eternity (if there is an eternity) can be of no significance to men. (p. 21)
The problem with the resurgence of paganism is that it has picked up where paganism left off. There is a separation between philosophy and religion, between reason and piety, and consequently there is no reciprocal influence between man and God: “relation without reciprocity has no meaning”. (p. 23) This is felt even more by an atheist or agnostic practicing paganism today. The Greeks had come to believe there was a God, but it was impossible to communicate with this God. The neo-pagan does not even believe (or at least greatly questions the belief) that there is an Other with which they are not able to have a reciprocal relationship, with whom they are not able to communicate. In the end most adherents of the new paganism will get tired of it because it doesn’t truly offer them anything. They will either become people of faith or they will continue as a faithless people that no longer fills the need to express themselves through empty rituals in a “temple” to nothing. Either way, the fad will pass.