Post-Christendom and the Return of Paganism in the West
French philosopher Chantal Delsol discusses the roots of de-Christianization in the West and the new challenges facing the Christian faithful.
The first post-Christian generation has officially emerged in America: According to a 2018 study, a majority of the so-called Generation Z — all Americans born from 1999 to 2015 — rejects the idea of a religious identity. This generation includes twice more atheists than the adult population, and 37% of them believe there cannot be any certainty of the existence of God.
This alarming tendency is already widespread in Europe, where a majority of young adults have no faith, as a recent report showed. But it didn’t arise out of the blue, as it results from a long process that started in the 18th century and became dominant in the 1960s.
As this topic is subject to passionate debates in the West, French philosopher Chantal Delsol offered a stimulating reflection about the mechanisms and implications of the phenomenon during a lecture she gave at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, in the framework of a Nov. 29-30 conference promoted by the Institute for Legal Culture Ordo Iuris. Entitled “The House on the Rock: Axiology of Law for the Europe of Tomorrow,” the event focused on the current stakes and the future of cultural and social life in Europe.
A Catholic philosopher and columnist well-known to the European public, Delsol is the author of a number of books and articles focusing on European identity in the age of secularism and relativism and on the origin of the political and religious crisis the West is going through.
While stating that Europe has officially entered a post-Christendom era, Delsol highlighted the fact that the end of Christendom by no means implies the end of Christianity in the West. However, this situation requires that Christians acknowledge their minority position and correctly identify the new forces and ideologies at play.
The Register interviewed her at the conclusion of the conference.
In your speech entitled “After Christendom,” you noted that Christianity was no longer the master nor the inspirer of our Western societies. In your opinion, this state of affairs is the expression of the so-called post-Christendom. In this respect, you speak about a reversal of the situation that occurred in the fourth century, when pagan myths were transformed into Christian truths: Today, Christian truths are gradually being transformed into myths. How is this transformation articulated?
Humans need to make their lives meaningful, to question their roots and future, to know why they are here. All societies meet this need through stories which are neither true nor false and that we call myths. Regardless of whether they are true or false, they are meaningful. We don’t know if Achilles really existed, but it doesn’t matter: he gives meaning to human courage and to its struggle against adversity.
But with ancient Greeks and Judeo-Christians came the notion of truth: Christ is no longer a myth but a true story. Christians, when they settled down and took power (during the fourth century) did not make a clean sweep of pagan myths; this wasn’t possible because they were too deeply rooted in the hearts and minds. Therefore, the Christians took up these myths and made them truths. For example, the story of the virgin-mother existed as a myth and became a truth: For a believer, the Virgin Mary really did exist.
Today, we are witnessing the opposite movement: For our contemporaries, Christ becomes a mythical character, who is neither true nor false, giving meaning to life (compare Tolstoy’s book on the life of Christ). It is this ebb and flow that interested me. It means that we are definitely on the way back to a pagan mode.
What makes you think that our society is currently falling into paganism, more than into nihilism, as many elements in our societies suggest?
Nihilism means that we seek to break or bypass the very structures of anthropology; it is what sociologists Marcel Mauss and Claude Lévi-Strauss called “base,” which is made up of three essential polarities: life and death, man and woman, and filiation. This is why, for example, incest is prohibited in all human societies. We can identify such a base thanks to its permanence over time (which is called natural law; that can be identified because all people follow it — it is an anthropological permanence). To be nihilistic is to want to challenge this base. Marriage between two persons of the same sex is typically nihilistic. Nothing of this sort existed in human history (except one case: Nero’s buffoon marriage with his catamite).
The situation is quite different for other so-called societal measures such as abortion, euthanasia or assisted suicide. In contrast to same-sex “marriage,” infanticide, euthanasia and suicide can be found in all human societies except Judeo-Christian societies (which is well documented, for example, in the famous Epistle to Diognetus). When we implement such measures, it is only a return to paganism, which precedes us, and which spontaneously and naturally returns when Christianity fades away.
Why is atheism now so specifically present in societies with Judeo-Christian roots, in your judgment?
It is because only the affirmation of the truth can produce its negation. There is no atheism in paganism, in which there are a multitude of divine or sacred myths that overlap and are worshipped with more or less ardor, in a kind of polyphony in which we do not know who believes in what. Historian Paul Veyne addressed this question in a book entitled Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths?: An Essay on the Constitutive Imagination. In the society of myths, everything is relative, and syncretism reigns — which is very different from tolerance; that can only be exercised within the regime of truth. On the contrary, the affirmation of the unique, exclusive truth (which comes from the “jealous God” of the Bible) can produce atheism; that is, exclusivity into its opposite.
Aggressive secularism — which is rampant in France and spreading to an increasing number of European countries — seems to want to purely and simply eliminate any reference to religion within societies. I am thinking especially about the recent controversy in France over a nun expelled from an elderly home because of her veil, the ban on crèches in town halls or the removal of the cross from St. Nicholas’ mitre in Belgium. ... Since nature abhors a vacuum, another form of religiosity is necessarily taking root in our Western societies. You often mention the “secular religions” peril. What is their relationship with paganism, and why are they so specifically hostile to Christianity?
Secular religions are paganisms, of the very ordinary kind. They favor attachment to all kinds of myths and stories that are more or less sacred, such as radical ecology, glorification of whales or dolphins. … In short, we create all kinds of idols. All the prohibitions against religion you mention are real, of course: They embody refusals of the founding religion, which is considered oppressive, and which we must get rid of if we want to be able to indulge in the delights and disorders of paganism.
The question of truth, which was discussed above, is very important here: Because there is one Truth, the Christian religion is exclusive. We must never forget that the word “heresy” comes from the Greek word airesis, which means “choice.” The fight against the cross of St. Nicholas, and other fights, is a refusal of the exclusive truth, always suspected of intolerance. And it is a way of making Christendom — which has not stopped dying for the past two centuries — disgorge definitively.
You are rather critical toward our Catholic clergy, who tends, in your opinion, not to take stock of the minority position of Christianity in today’s society. At the same time, the most traditionalist parishes are statistically the ones that massively attract young people. What approach would you recommend, in this respect?
I think our clergy is very sick. An all-too-big part of it is haunted by power and dominated by sexual passions of all kinds, in the midst of the vow of chastity. One need only look at the way Catholic institutions work, how poorly they are governed, with secrecy and appetite for power. The Church has known many other misfortunes and will experience a rebirth that may come from monasteries. But for the time being, it is natural that a clergy that is so busy with power and worldliness does not realize that it has lost power over society. Problems come from far away. The reason why the youth prefer a traditional Church is because they feel a more genuine fervor, more distant from worldly attractions: The Catholic clergy has long been flirting with Marxism, in order to be fashionable, and today it is flirting with contemporary art, for example, once again to be fashionable. Young people who hope for the Church’s holiness, and not its worldly success, are very reluctant to embrace all of this.
Speaking of monastic revival, what do you think about American writer Rod Dreher’s insights about the future of Christianity in the West, in his famous The Benedict Option?
Rod Dreher and I talked a lot, and his book is very interesting. We could believe that he calls for the creation of fortresses where children would be raised far away from a depraved postmodern society. It’s not really that. The man is more open than his book may suggest. It only means that in the post-Christendom disarray, Christians need groupings around strong spiritual centers; in other words, monasteries. And I think he’s right.
Solène Tadié is the Register’s Rome-based Europe correspondent.