The Last Religion Standing

The Last Religion Standing July 24, 2017

Last year, I wrote several posts about the pagan mythology that was so rife in Britain during the 1960s and 1970s, and which found expression in so many fine films and television programs, the “films of Old, Weird, Britain.” Together these items have come to be known as “Folk Horror”, which is now the subject of a book by Adam Scovell. This was in its way a major contribution to popular culture, but it also achieved a lot of credibility in the real world, and one that demands some closer examination today. Oddly, this whole Pagan Revival mythology briefly achieved a rare status within religious thought, as a genuine and systematic alternative to the whole Judeo-Christian scheme, and that is rarer than you might think. Looking at this abortive Religion-That-Might-Have-Been is instructive for understanding both the attractive and deterrent features of the Christianity that we actually do possess.

I spelled out these pagan and would-be pagan ideas at some length, and traced their descent from anthropologists of varying credibility, especially Sir James Frazer and Margaret Murray. To oversimplify, they offered a whole reconstruction of religious history that dated back to polytheistic and pagan fertility cults, rooted in local rural communities. According to this model, this is the prehistory we all share, with its common mythology of a great Goddess. Also common was idea of the spirit of the crops being manifested in a particular individual, a ritual king, who was sacrificed and replaced when his strength began to fade. According to this theory again, those ancient ideas, rituals and customs survived very close below the surface of later life, with Christianity as a thin veneer. Holy days of the Old Religion were preserved in Christian guise, so that a pagan festival on August 1 became Lammas.

Further, we are told that the misunderstood practice of the Old Religion provided the source for stories of the “witch cult”, as it was noted across Europe. It also manifested in a whole preserved culture of ballads and folk songs, customs and dances, all of which were being revived in the twentieth century. Folk horror was preceded and massively overshadowed by the Folk Music revival. These ideas reached their height with the counter-culture movement between roughly 1968 and 1975. There is a beyond-brilliant 2010 book on all this by Rob Young, called Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music.

Quite apart from that fertility cult, theories of bygone paganism also offered a whole vision of the landscape and countryside with its holy sites – its megalithic monuments and stone circles, its carved hill figures and other numinous places thinly concealed in Christian form, its inconceivably deep history. In some versions, the lost history included the legendary ley lines that sprawled across the landscape, uniting places of historic sanctity.There were giants and heroes on the earth in those days – and who knew, perhaps they might yet be raised again. For anyone who cared to look, you could spend the rest of your life exploring this ancient world of dormant spiritual power. As William Blake wrote, all things begin and end in Albion’s ancient, druid, rocky shore. Christianity, in this whole scenario, featured very poorly, as a light dusting of belief scattered over a fundamentally and irredeemably pagan core.

You get a good sense of this whole world from a major travel feature by Rosie Schaap in a recent New York Times, on The Weird, Mystic Pull of Southwest England. Glastonbury, Tintagel …

So please, could we have our sacred landscape back?

The main problem with all this – apart from the little peccadillo of occasional human sacrifice – is that historically, it was totally factually incorrect from beginning to end. No component of it was historically true. Insofar as the whole system had a history, it was that of late Victorian and Edwardian Romanticism, mightily magnified by the demented fantasies or outright falsehoods of some of its exponents – demented in the case of Margaret Murray, and conscious invention in the case of such other leading lights as Robert Graves and Gerald Gardner. The scholarly work of Ronald Hutton convincingly disproved most alleged continuities from ancient pagans to modern times.

What we were left with, then, was two distinct but related phenomena. One was the popular culture achievement, the Folk Horror, which had to be seen as wholly fictional; and then we had the actual practiced religions of the emerging neo-pagan networks, from Wiccans through Druids and miscellaneous mystics. As religious systems, any and all of those might be considered authentic in terms of the devotion they attract from their members, but they have no historic roots before (at most) the early to mid-twentieth century. Wicca, as a religion, is roughly as old as I am, and much like the popular culture, it entirely derives from invented literary fictions.

At last in terms of seeking a deeply rooted, age-old, spiritual tradition, which offers a sacred landscape available more or less outside your front door – when you get there, there’s no there there.

But consider all this in the context of the time, and understand why, for about a decade, it was so attractive. For long centuries, religious life in the West has been absolutely dominated by versions of a Judeo-Christian vision, which to varying degrees comprehends or underlies not just Judaism and all Christian traditions but also Islam and Mormonism. That is above all a scriptural tradition, which assumes a shared mythological narrative with a common cast of characters, and above all a shared theater of events, in the land of Palestine and neighboring regions. Week by week, Christians read and recite passages concerning their relationship to such paladins of faith as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to the minutiae of exactly what happened at such places as Moriah and Midian, Zion and Bethel.

So familiar are we with all this that it rarely strikes us how odd it might appear to a true religious outsider. For Jews, the whole system makes wonderful sense, in that they are commemorating the deeds of their quite authentic ancestors, in real places that once belonged to them, and which today are restored to their descendants. Christians, in contrast, act on the principle that they have been grafted into this historical continuity, so that in some symbolic sense these individuals and places belong to them: that the patriarchs and matriarchs are fathers and mother in faith. Seventeenth century Scots Calvinists used to speak of the whole length and breadth of the kingdom of Scotland, from Dan to Beersheba.

Christians might have their holy places, where that Judeo-Christan stories continues through history. But the basic fact remains that their Holy Land is a borrowed one, an appropriated one. They sing longingly about a Jordan river they have never seen. What am I to Moriah, or what is Moriah to me?

As to their ancestors, this is not a dilemma in societies that have been Christian for millennia, but it is of course a pressing issue in newer Christian lands, such as in contemporary Africa. So you missionaries are telling us that nothing we inherited from our ancestors is valid or worthwhile, and that we must now act as if these patriarchs of yours should matter to us?

If you care about historical roots – if you seek history and meaning and spirituality in the landscape – these are real issues. The search for a locally valid spiritual history is what drove Joseph Smith to invent his Mormon mythology, with its American settings (although he also borrowed the Hebrew ancestors). At least as originally conceived, he was describing the North America of the Lakes and the Midwest, lands he knew well, even if his attention later strayed to Central America.

And of course, while I am talking here about Anglo-American traditions, this attempt to localize the pre-Christian Holy is a theme in many European nations, certainly from nineteenth century Romanticism onward. Sometimes, as in Goethe, it also gets mixed up with tales of witches and demons.

I would argue that Christianity faces a basic dilemma that should agonize us much more than it does: how far can most of the assumptions of faith make sense without assuming that Jewish context, and specifically the issue of biological descent and continuity? Obviously, those assumptions do indeed make sense for the vast majority of thoughtful believers, but they demand some thinking through.

Assume for the sake of argument that I am a contemporary Westerner who finds it difficult to live in those borrowed historical landscapes, to accept that mythology. Assume that I admire these traditions, but that they don’t make sense to me personally. What are my alternatives for religious expression? Not, obviously, in any form of Christianity, or of the other Judeo-Christian derived faiths. So where do I go? To Hinduism or Buddhism, which are so definitively rooted in non-Western languages, cultures, and regions? What else is there?

And that is why that pagan synthesis was so tempting in a British context, and for any other traditionally Christian country. Was there really a British Old Religion traceable back to the creation of Stonehenge some five thousand years ago, and beyond? Was it even possible today to share in that pristine faith, to know its rituals and songs, its dances and customs, to visit and celebrate its holy places? Might it even be imagined as some kind of autochthonous British Hinduism, a British Shinto? Did Britain have its own Dreamtime? It was a dazzling prospect.

And it was false. The whole concoction was the creation of academics and journalists and creative artists, who themselves were virtually all products of mainstream British Christianity, and of its secularist offspring. Sure, you could join a neo-pagan movement, but always knowing that every aspect of its ideas and mythology and symbolism was a thoroughly modern, and post-modern, construction.

Suddenly, with a shock, you realized that Britain indeed had an ancient religion rooted in the soil, and it was Christianity. That was the only religion left standing, the last viable faith for the West.

So let me enjoy the Folk Horror fictions, with its stone circles and churchyard rituals. But the real religion is in the church itself.


Next time I’ll be discussing one of the great Christian mystics of the land and soil of England, namely Gerrard Winstanley.



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