Neo-Paganism as a Romantic/Enlightenment religion

Tanya Luhrman 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.

"The Ancient of Days" by William Blake

“The Ancient of Days” by William Blake

Religion and Rationality

According to Ronald Hutton, in Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft (1999), the Enlightenment

“set up an antithesis between Christianity and other patriarchal monotheisms and the religions of nature which 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 Green and Roman texts for inspiration and example.”

This could almost be a description of contemporary Neo-Paganism.

According to 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 which 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 thorough 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, contemporary Neo-Pagans reject much of institutionalized religion and especially the Christian notion of 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 which are clearly foreign to contemporary Neo-Paganism.

At the same time, Enlightenment materialism denied the relevance, and even the reality, of their 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.” Neo-Paganism is a reaction to both the overemphasis on transcendence in Christianity and the 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 rejection of divinity altogether, but rather a relocation of divinity in the world and in the human being.

Romanticism, writes Davis was

“a reaction against rationalism with its arid, abstract generalities. The stereotypical Romantic prized instead the depths of feeling and dramatic experiences which 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, soul, and blood over the intellect.

Women and Nature

Hutton explains that “the characteristic language of a committed modern paganism has its direct origin in German Romanticism” and its British following. Romanticism, according to Hutton, 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 which had traditionally been devalued by Christianity: woman, nature, earth, darkness, night, intoxication, the unconscious, imagination, sensation, feeling, and the passions. As David Waldron explains, in The Sign of the Witch: Modernity and the Pagan Revival (2008),

“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 in contemporary Neo-Paganism.

The Enlightenment also 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, contemporary 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.”

Davis explains that, in the Romantic view, “it is the quintessentially and characteristically female which needs liberation and which 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 difference between what has been called radical feminism and cultural feminism, respectively. Both kinds of feminism can be found in contemporary Neo-Paganism, and the tension between these traditions continues to be felt.

Like the Enlightenment and Romantic thinkers, Neo-Paganism advocates a return to nature and to a pagan past in order to cure humanity’s social and spiritual ills. However, Neo-Paganism’s conception of nature resembles that of the Romantics more than that of 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.” (Davis)

“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.'” (Waldron)

Contemporary Neo-Paganism followed the Romantics in viewing nature as an living organism, rather than a mechanism.

"Wanderer above the sea of fog" by Caspar David Friedrich

“Wanderer above the sea of fog” by Caspar David Friedrich

Individual and Community

The Romantic attitude toward individualism is even more complicated. On the one hand, “Romanticism represented the evolution of Enlightenment individualism into a more extreme form, a virtual narcissism,” writes 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 notion was later taken up by Carl Jung and had a profound influence on the contemporary Neo-Pagan conception 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.” Where 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 Romanticism, Neo-Paganism has a mixed attitude toward individualism and community. Historically, early neo-pagan movements were deeply nationalistic. While some forms of contemporary Paganism, such as Heathenism, continue to be highly ethnicized, most forms of contemporary Neo-Paganism have rejected ethnicity as part of spirituality. The reason is two-fold. First, ethnic neo-paganism is now inextricably associated with the National Socialist movement and its crimes against humanity. Second, contemporary Neo-Paganism was born in the United States, where ethnic ties now tend to be less significant than to many Europeans. (Even Wicca began as a supposed revival of British pagan religion.) For this reason, many European forms of Paganism are reconstructionist, while American Neo-Paganism is not.

Neo-Paganism today takes both a highly individualist form and a highly communal form. The former can be witnessed in the growth of “solitaries” and “self-initiations”. Between the two, perhaps is the difficult-to-define category of Internet spirituality, which can be considered both individualistic and communal, in a special sense. Contemporary Neo-Paganism has certainly 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 more closely resembles the attitude of the Romantics. Like the Romantics, Neo-Pagans do tend to place a high value on on community. But unlike the Romantics, the American Neo-Pagan community is not one born of blood or language, but a community of one’s choice. As Loletta Collins has observed in her thesis, “A Coming Home: Neopaganism and the Search for Community” (2002), Neo-Pagans do have communities, but they are first and foremost communities of individuals.


2 thoughts on “Neo-Paganism as a Romantic/Enlightenment religion

  1. Pingback: “Why Pagan?” Part 3? Heretics, Heretics Everywhere. | Son of Hel

  2. Pingback: “Why ‘Pagan’? An Atheist Pagan’s Response to a Theist” by John Halstead | Humanistic Paganism

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