There’s been a lot of talk recently about the decline of the West. I’ve posted my own thoughts describing the situation and what we can do about it. John Halstead wrote about the need for a shift in consciousness and Rhyd Wildermuth responded with a piece on the need for significant action now. John Michael Greer has been writing about this on his Archdruid Report for years.
Coru Cathubodua priest Rynn Fox pointed me toward this piece from Adbusters magazine. It was published last October, but it’s as timely as any of the links above. It’s titled The Twilight of the West and it explains our situation in great clarity. Here’s a key quote:
We had expected the new countries in Asia and Africa to conform to the nation-state pattern constructed in Europe from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries. We had expected these societies to become, like Europe, more secular and instrumentally rational and less religious as economic growth accelerated. We had most recently expected them, after the discrediting of socialism, to imitate the triumph of consumer capitalism in the West, and for the new middle classes to pave the way to democracy. The reality is that these nations, instead of converging on the Western model, were becoming disorderly in complex ways that make Western conceptions seem what they always were: the product of a particular and unrepeatable historical experience.
To that last sentence I would add “unsustainable.”
Rather than rehash what’s already been said on the inevitable collapse of the contemporary American lifestyle, I want to explore the religious aspects of the Twilight of the West.
As the Adbusters essay describes, we’re seeing diverse and decentralized political and economic approaches. This isn’t because divinely ordained representative democracy and free market capitalism are being perverted by corruption and communism. It’s because the conditions that led to the rise of representative democracy and free market capitalism in the West aren’t present in other parts of the world… and they won’t be present in the West for much longer.
The facts have changed so a different approach is required. One size does not fit all. And this is as true for religion as it is for politics and economics.
Before we go any further, I want to make one thing very clear: the reality of the Gods does not depend on the structure of human society. But religion – how we relate to questions of ultimate importance, including the Gods – is a human response to specific conditions at a specific place and time.
Modern Paganism has its roots in the excesses of Christianity. As Brendan Myers said:
To put it simply, people got tired of the austerities of Christian discipline and the misanthropy of the Doctrine of Original Sin … they dramatized for themselves a world that never knew Original Sin, and so still existed in a state of original blessing. In that imagined world it was no sin to ‘dance, sing, feast, make music, and love.’
Once the illusion of monotheism was broken (see the review of A Million and One Gods), a revival of polytheism was inevitable. The wide diversity of religious experiences throughout the world leads to the logical conclusion that there are many Gods, not one.
As the infrastructure of the West (both physical and philosophical) continues to crumble, people will look for local solutions that match the local circumstances in which they find themselves. Some will cling to familiar churches, some will seek out extremist and violent religions, and some will abandon all religion.
Polytheism is particularly well-suited for the world to come.
Polytheism doesn’t assume everything should be done only one way. You worship your Gods your way and I’ll worship my Gods the way They call me to worship Them. If you find something that works for you, I may try it out. If it works for me, great. If not, I’ll keep doing what I was doing. There’s no reason for us to fight over our religious differences.
Polytheism doesn’t promise what it can’t deliver. There is no prosperity gospel in polytheism. Read the stories of the Gods and heroes – no one is promised an easy life. Instead, we’re encouraged to live virtuously and heroically in spite of difficult times… and the difficult times are coming.
Polytheism doesn’t distract from this-world problems. Is there an Otherworld? Maybe. Is reincarnation for real? We don’t know. But here’s what we do know: there’s no pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die promise to keep oppressed people in line. Marx was only half right: the opium of the people isn’t religion, it’s religion that preaches conformance and compliance with injustice.
Polytheism encourages us to see beyond ourselves. It encourages us to honor the Gods and the virtues they represent. It tells us to honor our ancestors, and to live in such a way that our descendants will honor us. It reminds us that while individuals have value, so do families, communities, and tribes.
The polytheism – or more precisely, the polytheisms – that arise in response to the decline of the West will be inspired by the past but they will not be identical to the polytheisms of ancient Greece or Pharaonic Egypt or Iron Age Britain. Our conditions and circumstances are different, so our polytheisms will be different.
I have mixed feelings about the decline of the West. I’ve done OK with it. But the Western political and economic system has never fulfilled its promise of “lifting all boats,” much less sharing its benefits fairly and equitably. It’s pushed us into a lifestyle that is harmful to other people and other creatures – and it’s not meaningful, even to those who have far more than their share.
How I feel isn’t important. It’s not sustainable, it’s in decline, and it will collapse. What replaces it will be different – slightly different in some areas, very different in others. The ground is fertile for religions that recognize many ways and many Gods.
The future is a scary time and it will be a difficult time, but in the words of the Anomalous Thracian, it’s also a damn fine time to be a polytheist.