Atheism, Paganism, and the God of Abraham
Several months ago, Rod Dreher, responding to several commenters on his blog, wondered whether a decline of Christianity in the West will lead to an atheistic society or a pagan one. There are, to be sure, plenty of begged questions in this scenario, but Dreher’s preference may be surprising to some:
Personally, I find paganism far more attractive than atheism, because pagans, however mistaken their understanding (from a Christian point of view) nevertheless share with Christians a recognition that there is Something There beyond ourselves, and the material world. I can have (have had) a fruitful, engaging discussion with my friend and commenter Franklin Evans, a pagan, in a way that I just can’t with friends who have no spiritual or religious beliefs, or a sense of the numinous.
I lowered my eyebrows when I remembered Emmanuel Levinas’ commentary to the Talmudic passages discussing the Israelites’ initial refusal to enter the Promised Land:
This then is the meaning of the revolt of these men: a crisis of atheism, a crisis much more serious than the crisis of the Golden Calf. The Golden Calf, that was still religious: one switched gods. Here, nothing is left, one contests the very attributes of divinity.
But Levinas (as I discovered while trying to find the above passage) isn’t perfectly consistent on this matter. Elsewhere, he declares:
To ignore the true God is in fact only half an evil; atheism is worth more than the piety bestowed on mythical gods in which a Simone Weil can already distinguish the forms and symbols of the true religion. Monotheism surpasses and incorporates atheism, but it is impossible unless you attain the age of doubt, solitude and revolt.
If atheism and paganism are, from Levinas’ Jewish perspective, crises, then atheism—while the more severe crisis of faith—is preferable because it “must be run” to achieve genuine monotheistic faith, in his reading. This speaks, I believe, to both Levinas’ own historical circumstances as an academic philosopher and religious educator in post-Holocaust France and to the historical circumstances of the Jewish texts he reads. One possible theological reading of the rise of Nazi Germany is as a crisis of revived European paganism, the aftermath of which prompted a crisis of atheism among Europe’s surviving Christians and Jews. His philosophy and theology is informed by both Heidegger and Sartre, but the influence of Sartre’s existentialism is necessary to find belief in the aftermath of the totalitarianism that tempted Heidegger.
Even before the twentieth century, the historical narrative Judaism was one that cast paganism as the greater danger: the enemies of the Jews are always pagans, not atheists. Rabbinic attempts, in Late Antiquity and the Medieval period, to cast Trinity-worshipping Christians as pagans were not only theological polemics, but attempts to assimilate the newly powerful (and, in many cases, newly persecuting) Christian authorities to the established historical narratives. Paganism acknowledges the divine, but it is the religious system of the political and military enemies of the kingdom of Israel and, later, the dispersed Jewish people. Its crisis is political; atheism, on the other hand, is an internal, personal crisis. In Levinas’ reading, it is a necessary intermediate step: if one is to move from paganism to Judaism (a movement, it should be noted, of which traditional texts are deeply skeptical and frequently seek to resist), then the “crisis of atheism” is a moment of religious aporia at the moment after all the old beliefs have fallen away, but before the God of Israel is acknowledged.
Christianity, on the other hand, historically viewed pagans/gentiles as potential converts, not as an external threat. Orthodox Jews still shake their fists and “remember Amalek and what he did to you” several times a year; Christianity, on the other hand, converted his later incarnation, Rome. For both religions, a reversion to paganism is a falling away from the true faith and the True God. But the political-historical implications of such an event, traditionally understood, are vastly different.