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Russell Kirk and the New Pagans
In a prescient warning from 1992, Russell Kirk speaks to us from the past about the problems we now find ourselves faced with.
Good morning to all on this (hopefully) fine Sunday. Today is October 15, which means one thing: we are already halfway through Russell Kirk month! The great conservative thinker wrote at length about a variety of subjects. His great claim to fame is The Conservative Mind, but over the course of his storied career, many of his best, most prophetic moments came from the many articles he published. One such prophecy came in July 1992, in a lecture (published soon after) titled, “Civilization Without Religion?” given at the Heritage Foundation. Though the lecture was given 30 years ago, its themes have aged like fine wine, and are worth revisiting today.
The central thesis of “Civilization Without Religion?” is a sobering answer to the question presented by the title: a civilization deprived of the religious tenets it was built on cannot survive.
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Culture, in Kirk’s estimation, arises from the cult, “a joining together for worship—that is, the attempt of people to commune with a transcendent power. It is from association in the cult, the body of worshippers, that human community grows.” All that is built in any culture, from the Christian West to Hindu India to the Islamic civilization of the Middle East, rests upon the religion of the region, “the material order rests upon the spiritual order.”
Kirk examined the contemporary world in 1992 and determined that such a fate was befalling the West. This seems somewhat shocking to the modern audience, given the state of affairs in 1992. The West had just won the Cold War, the United States had outlasted her great atheistic adversary, and the scourge of communism had receded from the global stage.
Today, however, Kirk’s grave predictions seem all too prescient. Consider this passage from Kirk’s essay, describing the conditions of the United States in 1992:
“Religious belief is attenuated at best, for many—or else converted, after being secularized, into an instrument for social transformation. Books give way to television and videos; universities, intellectually democratized, are sunk to the condition of centers for job certification. An increasing proportion of the population, in America especially, is dehumanized by addiction to narcotics and insane sexuality.”
The familiarity with modern America is striking. In 1992, around 90% of Americans identified as Christian. Today, it stands at 63%. The number of deaths from drug overdose has quintupled since 1999. Russell Kirk, writing at a time that many Americans now view as the peak of American civilization, saw these horrors hiding in the shadows of our greatness. Today, we watch in real-time as his predictions unfold.
In place of the widespread Christian consensus—or, to be frank, any consensus revolving around staunch religious belief at all—we see today a disturbing return of paganism. Take, for instance, the postmodern movements of the American left that declare all of reality subject to the hierarchies of race and sexuality—and that such identifiers are malleable at will. This notion that reality is a mere construct, subject to the expressive will of each individual for his or herself, is not rooted in rational thought. Like the pagans of old, it disregards the idea that there are objective truths about this world. And, like the pagans of old, its believers are zealots of their cause.
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On the right, too, can new pagan movements be found. In May of this year, Jack Butler of National Review wrote an exemplary piece highlighting the pagan beliefs of the vitalist movement. Led by the self-named Bronze Age Pervert, the vitalists believe in the primacy of power. They reject the Christian worldview of human dignity and objective moral truth in favor of a relativistic world, one in which what is right is determined by who is the strongest. Like their postmodern counterparts on the left, the vitalists are an outgrowth of Western decay. As Christianity fades, so too do its cultural tenets.
What, then, can be done? Despite his pessimism, Kirk offers us an answer:
“‘Redeem the time; redeem the dream,’ T.S. Eliot wrote. It remains possible, given right reason and moral imagination, to confront boldly the age’s disorders. The restoration of true learning, humane and scientific; the reform of many public policies; the renewal of our awareness of a transcendent order, and of the presence of an Other, the brightening of the comers where we find ourselves such approaches are open to those among the rising generation who look for a purpose in life.”
In short, only a fervent defense of Christianity and all her blessings will do. That is not to suggest, as some have done, that the Bible must be wielded as a club by the government against the unbelieving. Instead, each of us must, individually, work to resurrect the faith.
Reviving the cult upon which Western culture is built will not be easy. The historical record of the rise and fall of civilizations is not on our side. But the future, as it stands, is not yet written. To resign ourselves to a fate not yet determined is to make it reality. We can still yet choose a better fate.
Scott Howard is an undergraduate student at the University of Florida. An alumnus intern of National Review, he is currently an Editor at Lone Conservative and volunteers as an Associate Editor for the Freemen News-Letter. @ConservaMuse
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