Here are some general facts about religious trends in the United States. Institutional Christianity has weakened drastically since the 1960s. Lots of people who once would have been lukewarm Christmas-and-Easter churchgoers now identify as having “no religion” or being “spiritual but not religious.” The mainline-Protestant establishment is an establishment no more. Religion now polarizes our politics in a way.
What kind of general religious reality should be discerned from these facts is uncertain, and there are various plausible stories about what early-21st century Americans increasingly believe. The simplest of these is the secularization story — in which modern societies inevitably put away religious ideas as they advance in wealth and science and reason, and the decline of institutional religion.
The secularization narrative is insufficient. The religious impulse has hardly disappeared. In the early 2000s, over 40 percent of Americans answered with an emphatic “yes” when Gallup asked them if “a profound religious experience or awakening” had redirected their lives; that number had doubled since the 1960s.
So perhaps instead of secularization it makes sense to talk about the fragmentation and personalization of Christianity . These figures cobble together pieces of the old orthodoxies, take out the inconvenient bits and pitch them to mass audience. The result is a nation where Protestant awakenings have given way to post-Protestant wokeness.
Lately I’ve become interested in books and arguments that suggest there is, or might be, a genuinely post-Christian future for America — and that the term “paganism” might be reasonably revived to describe the new American religion.
A fascinating version of this argument is put forward by Steven Smith. He argues that much of what we understand as the march of secularism is something of an illusion, and that behind the scenes what’s actually happening in the modern culture war is the return of a pagan religious conception, which was half-buried by the rise of Christianity.
What is that conception? Divinity is inside the world rather than outside it, that God or the gods or Being are part of nature rather than an external creator.
This paganism allows for belief in spiritual and supernatural realities. It accepts the possibility of an afterlife. But it is deliberately agnostic about what awaits beyond this world. Instead, it sees the purpose of religion and spirituality as therapeutic.
In popular religious practice there isn’t always a clean line between this “immanent” religion and the transcendent alternative offered by Christianity and Judaism. But clearly religious cultures can tend toward one option or the other, and you can build a plausible case for a “pagan” (by Smith’s definition) tradition in Western and American religion, which in his account takes two major forms.
First, there is a tradition of intellectual and aesthetic pantheism that includes figures like Spinoza, Nietzsche, Emerson and Whitman, and that’s manifest in certain highbrow spiritual-but-not-religious writers today. Second, there is a civic religion that like the civic paganism of old makes religious and political duties identical, and treats the city of man as the city of God (or the gods), the place where we make heaven ourselves instead of waiting for the next life or the apocalypse. This immanent civic religion, Smith argues, is gradually replacing the more biblical form of civil religion that stamped American history down to the Protestant-Catholic-Jew 1950s.
It seems like we’re some distance from the intellectuals whom Smith describes as pagan actually donning druidic robes. Until then, those of us who still believe in a divine that made the universe rather than just pervading it — and who have a certain fear of what more immanent spirits have to offer us — should be able to recognize the outlines of a possible successor to our world-picture, while taking comfort that it is not yet fully formed.
—Ross Douthat is a columnist for the New York Times.