Anthropologist, Tanya Luhrmann, calls Paganism the perfect religion for the “romantic rationalist.” Neo-Paganism has its roots in both the Enlightenment and the Romantic Movement. Both these historical movements had special attitudes toward religion and rationality, women and nature, individualism and community. These differing attitudes blend together in a unique way in Neo-Paganism.
Religion and Rationality
According to historian, Ronald Hutton, the Enlightenment …
“set up an antithesis between Christianity and other patriarchal monotheisms and the religions of nature that had preceded them, and regarded the triumph of the former as a disaster. It identified alienation as the central problem facing the human self, and a return to nature as a rediscovery of true humanity. It also blamed that alienation at least partly upon authoritarian and hierarchical structures, which denied the autonomy of the individual and self-worth. It aimed to abolish or universalize the priesthood, it recognized no scripture, and it located the source of truth in the human being. It did so, moreover, by turning to pagan Greek and Roman texts for inspiration and example.”
This could almost be a description of Neo-Paganism today.
According to religious studies scholar, Philip Davis, in The Goddess Unmasked: The Rise of Neopagan Feminist Spirituality (1999), Enlightenment thinkers believed …
“that there was a natural order in the universe that could be discovered and grasped by the rigorous application of human intelligence. This natural order, once fully understood, would provide the blueprint for an ideal human society.”
The first step in this process was to wipe the slate clean of religious dogma and any social structures that did not survive a thoroughly rationalist critique. Enlightenment thinkers rejected the authority of the church, its hierarchy and its creeds, in favor of the free exercise of reason. They especially rejected the doctrine of original sin in favor of a belief that human beings could perfect society without God. Similarly, Neo-Pagans reject much of institutionalized religion and especially the Christian notion that humanity and the world are fallen. In its attitude toward institutional religions, especially Christianity, Neo-Paganism is an Enlightenment religion.
However, Hutton also points out that the Enlightenment associated religious enthusiasm with folly and tyranny, and viewed the only reasonable alternatives to Christianity to be atheism or a vague and impersonal deism. It also classed all the religions of the ancient Near East with Christianity as erroneous and despotic, attitudes that are clearly foreign to Neo-Pagans.
Enlightenment materialism denied the relevance, and even the reality, of the spiritual dimension. The Romantic Movement was a reaction to this, and reaffirmed the spiritual dimension. According to Davis, the Romantics “sought to re-enchant the world as a whole by asserting the immanence of the divine, its constant presence in the earth and in human beings.” Romanticism was …
“a reaction against rationalism with its arid, abstract generalities. The stereotypical Romantic prized instead the depths of feeling and dramatic experiences that seemed to give vibrancy and excitement to life. … Romanticism represented the claims of the heart, soul, and blood over the intellect. … In the place of cold, analytic reason, Romantics reveled in their emotions and regarded dramatic experiences as the real color and purpose of life. In place of dead materialism, they sought the ‘life-force’ and the heights and depths of the spirit.”
Romanticism represented the claims of the heart and soul over the intellect.
Hutton explains that “the characteristic language of a committed modern paganism has its direct origin in German Romanticism” and its British following. Like Romanticism, Neo-Paganism is a reaction to both the overemphasis on transcendence in Christianity and the reductionist materialism of the Enlightenment. Neo-Pagans believe the that solution to the social and spiritual problems created by the belief in a transcendent deity is not a complete rejection of divinity, but rather a relocation of divinity in the natural world and in the human being, body and soul.
Women and Nature
The Enlightenment gave birth to the feminist movement, including the publication of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women. Enlightenment thinkers regarded both men and women as unique individuals, and not primarily as stereotyped members of two distinct genders. This led to the belief that women should have equal access to the law and the same educational and other opportunities as men. The influence of the feminist movement on Neo-Paganism cannot be overstated. In its rejection of Christianity and patriarchy, Neo-Paganism is very much an Enlightenment religion.
According to Davis, in contrast to the Enlightenment, the Romantic attitude toward women’s rights …
“moved away from the establishment of equality among individuals of both sexes, and highlighted instead the differences between males and females as biological groups. Now the liberation of women came to mean the celebration and empowerment of everything that could be regarded as distinctively female, over and against what was considered essentially male. The stereotypical view of the female as emotional, intuitive, and instinctively loving coincided so well with the basic values of Romanticism that women were idealized to the point of worship among some Romantics.”
According to Hutton, Romanticism exalted the natural and the irrational, “qualities that had conventionally been both feared and characterized as feminine.” It emphasized the beauty and sublimity of those things that had traditionally been devalued by Christianity: woman, nature, earth, darkness, night, intoxication, the unconscious, imagination, sensation, and the passions.
“Where Enlightenment thought rejected images associated with the primitive, the feminine and nature in an attempt to free humanity from the bonds of superstition and natural catastrophe, romanticists reified these images and reconfigured them as authentic, sublime and liberating from the tyranny of industrialism and scientific rationality.”
Later, this reification of the feminine and nature became a central component of Neo-Paganism.
Davis explains that, in the Romantic view, “it is the quintessentially and characteristically female that needs liberation and that the world itself requires for its welfare, not the personal uniqueness of individual women.” The contrast of the Enlightenment and Romantic attitudes toward women is reflected in the contrast between equality feminism and difference feminism, respectively. Both kinds of feminism can be found in Neo-Paganism, and the tension between these two continues to be felt today.
Like the Enlightenment and Romantic thinkers, Neo-Pagans advocate a return to nature and to a pagan past in order to cure humanity’s social and spiritual ills. However, Neo-Pagans’ conception of nature resembles more that of the Romantics than the Enlightenment thinkers.
“In keeping with the Enlightenment, Romanticism looked to nature rather than to super-natural revelation as the ultimate source of truth. For the Romantics however, nature was not just a physical mechanism governed by rational laws that could be discovered and adapted to the human social order. Rather, nature was wild and free, colorful and dramatic; it was life itself in all its splendor and horror. Some Romantics regarded civilization itself as artificial, a human deviation from the true and natural way. …
“The Romantics progressively broke with the Enlightenment conception of a static nature about which one could find objective truth and control as a means of progressing human nature. Romantic thought transformed the conception of nature from a static mechanism … to nature existing as a ‘dynamic, diverse cosmos in a constant state of becoming.’”
Neo-Pagans followed the Romantics in viewing nature as a living organism, rather than a mechanism.
Individual and Community
The Romantic attitude toward the individual is even more complicated. On the one hand, “Romanticism represented the evolution of Enlightenment individualism into a more extreme form, a virtual narcissism,” explains Davis. “Romantics often cultivated a devotion to the uniqueness of inner self and of personal experience.” This expressed itself in the belief “that exploring and expressing the self was the same thing as discovering God.” This concept was later taken up by Carl Jung and had a profound influence on the Neo-Pagan understanding of the relationship between humanity and divinity.
On the other hand, in place of the rationally organized state of the Enlightenment, Romantics advocated a return to what Davis calls “the organic community of shared blood, language, and ethnicity.” Whereas the Enlightenment thinkers “dissolved the intangible bonds of community by means of their skepticism towards the traditional institutions of family, church, and state,” the Romantics, in response, sought the “supposedly deeper unities of blood, ethnic kinship, and the affinities of shared language and culture.” Davis describes one of the great paradoxes of Romanticism as …
“its ability to combine and stimulate both narcissism and tribalism. Romantics proclaimed the invaluable uniqueness of individual experience; Romantics also hymned the overriding claims of biological and cultural communities, the groups to which people belong by nature (not by rational choice).”
Like the Romantics, Neo-Pagans have a mixed attitude toward individualism and community. Early pagan revivalist movements were deeply nationalistic. While some forms of contemporary Paganism and Heathenry continue to be ethnicized, most Neo-Pagans have rejected ethnicity as part of spirituality. The reason is two-fold. First, ethnic paganism is now inextricably associated with the Nazis and their crimes against humanity. Second, Neo-Paganism was born in the United States, where ethnic ties have become less significant over the decades. While many European forms of Paganism are ethnic, American Neo-Paganism is not.
Neo-Paganism today is highly individualistic. This is evident in the growth of “solitaries” and “self-initiations,” as well as the difficult-to-define category of internet spirituality, which can be considered both individualistic and communal, in a special sense.
Neo-Pagans have adopted the Enlightenment privileging of individual authority over institutional authority. What organization does exist among Neo-Pagans does tend to be decentralized. Note, however, that for Neo-Pagans the authority of the individual is not rooted in individual reason, as it was for Enlightenment thinkers, but in individual experience, and so it more closely resembles the attitude of the Romantics. Like the Romantics, Neo-Pagans do tend to place a high value on community. But unlike the Romantics, the American Neo-Pagan community is a community, not of blood or language, but of choice. As Loleta Collins has observed in her Master’s thesis, “A Coming Home: Neo-Paganism and the Search for Community” (2002), Neo-Pagans do have communities, but they are first and foremost communities of individuals.