Rebirth of the Gods
When I moved to the United States from Great Britain in 1964, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. America seemed so Christian then. The only dark blot on the landscape was that people feared the rise of Marxism throughout the world. Communism was the great threat, the political expression of what we call "atheistic humanism."
Two years after I had arrived in America to study theology, I was asked to be part of a seminar on the "Death of God" movement. Some time ago, there was a group of so-called theologians describing the death of God, and it was taken seriously enough to be part of a seminar in a theological school. The whole point was (as expressed by one of its leading theologians, T.J.J. Altizer) that God had so completely incarnated himself in the world by the act of dying on the cross that he liberated man from any alien transcendent divine power. As we sat around, my professor and the students were convinced that this was clearly an indication that secular humanism was victorious--that it was going to overtake the West, and that this was the great opponent of the Christian faith. What we didn't realize was that there was another member of the "Death of God" group by the name of David Miller, who was Professor of Religion at Syracuse University and was actually on the publishing committee for the Society of Biblical Literature. This man had a powerful role in determining what was published on the Bible.
David Miller actually published a book in 1974 (which I discovered much later), entitled The New Polytheism.1 In that book, Miller gave this prediction: at the death of God, we will see the rebirth of the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece and Rome. It was a confusing prediction: the rebirth of the gods? What does that mean? Miller seemed to know something about the so-called great achievement of secular humanism that nobody else did.2 What Miller had understood was that the death of God was not the death of the notion of the divine; it was the death of the God of the Bible (as Altizer had said, any alien transcendent divine power). You see, that's what people don't want; they don't want the God who is transcendent, sovereign, and independent of us, and so that God has to be killed. Since that time, in their minds, this God has been slowly put to death.
The Demise of Secular Humanism and Postmodernism
We have seen how Christianity has diminished in its cultural influence, but what's surprising now is the demise of secular humanism. Secular humanism is pulling back, losing power. And in its place we see what you might call the rebirth of pagan beliefs. The death of secular humanism occurred after a whole series of events. Humanism promised that by reason-- by man's brilliant thinking--we would save the world. But then we saw two world wars and the destruction of millions of people via the so-called secular humanists, men like Stalin, Pol Pot, etc. And people began feel alone, facing a world without any kind of spirituality.
Many intellectuals of the 19th and early 20th centuries predicted that expressions of religion would finally disappear. Karl Marx considered man the supreme deity and religion "the opiate of the masses." Friedrich Nietzsche said "God is dead... and we have killed him." Freud, in his book, The Future of an Illusion, spoke of religion as a mass delusion or collective neurosis from which we needed healing--a kind of mental illness. "Secular humanism is bound to take over," they reasoned as a group.
That was the prediction, but not the reality. Secular humanism failed because of all the problems that it brought us. Many factors contributed to its destruction. One of the things that has been destroying secular humanism is postmodernism. Postmodernism uses reason to critique the use of reason by the secular humanists. The problem with that is that it is impossible to think rationally, and there are no objective explanations of existence. That meant the death of postmodernism as well; after all, why should we believe the rational analysis of these postmodernists who are claiming there is no such thing as rational analysis?
We have seen the death of secular humanism and even postmodernism. But what about the transformation in our culture that was predicted by David Miller--the inroads of the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece and Rome? Miller probably should have added the gods of the East as well, because that's really what we have seen. If a picture's worth a thousand words, we can learn a lot from a picture posted by the Huffington Post in 2016: that of twenty Canadian policemen, in formal dress, sitting on prayer stools in a Buddhist temple.3 This was organized, I guess, by the chief of this group of policemen, who had these policemen practicing mindful meditation from Buddhist philosophy. The photograph offered an interesting juxtaposition between traditional Western values for law and order, and a wholly different worldview of Buddhism.
How does this take place? Our culture has changed in ways we were not expecting. Our culture is not a secular humanist success, but is in fact deeply spiritual. You know the phrase, "I'm spiritual, but not religious?' That is a useful description of where we are now as a culture. People want spirituality; they don't want secular humanism. Something odd has happened to make this possible. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, the former hippie-radical-intellectual, made an incredible statement about the 1960s revolution towards the end of her life. She said, "Within a remarkably brief period, a cataclysmic transformation of the very nature of our society took place." As this "cataclysmic transformation" took place, we saw the reemergence of ancient paganism in the West. Another observer, journalist Melanie Phillips, saw the same thing. The real agenda of what she calls the "attack on Western civilization" has been the use of sexuality as a battering ram, destroying the fundamental tenets of Western culture and replacing them with a new type of society altogether. Included in these tenets are all those Christian notions of who God is.
In the forthcoming posts in this series, we will turn our attention to consider the shifts that have occurred in American culture--specifically with regard to two overarching categories, spirituality and sexuality.
1. David Leroy Miller and James Hillman, The New Polytheism (Thompson, CT, Spring Publications, 1981).
2. As it turns out, Miller was a close friend of Carl Jung, and actually taught in the various Jungian foundations.
3. See Mohamd Omar, "Meanwhile in Canada, Peel Regional Officers Meditate in a Temple," Huffington Post, April 14, 2016.