Playing With Fire? The Rise of the Neo-Pagans

Should Catholics worry about the latest trends in Europe?

A neo-pagan ritual in Scandinavia: Paganism is gaining ground of late, in a disturbing development in certain locales.
A neo-pagan ritual in Scandinavia: Paganism is gaining ground of late, in a disturbing development in certain locales. (photo: Gunnar Creutz/Wikimedia Commons)

Across the lands of the frozen north, the Norse “gods” are returning.

Nordic paganism is now Iceland’s fastest-growing religion. From 570 members in 2002, the “association of the faith of the Æsir” — Ásatrúarfélagið — now numbers 4,126 Icelanders. This makes it the largest non-Christian religion in the country. In contrast, as of 2017, there are only 12,901 Catholics in Iceland, a country with a population totaling 348,580.

It is not just in the former Viking lands that a return to pagan ways is underway. In the U.K.’s 2011 census, more than 75,000 people identified as pagan, a follower of witchcraft or an adherent to some other New Age sect.

At first glance, this may not appear to be many in a population of nearly 60 million; but one can assume that these are active practitioners of their craft rather than “nominal” members.

Former New Age activist and now Catholic convert and author Roger Buck sees the attraction of today’s neo-paganism very similar to the appeal of the New Age movement: a loose body of beliefs that promises much and demands little. He told the Register: “I would argue Catholic Christianity in particular aspires to something of a maximum as opposed to a minimalism I see in paganism. … This maximum is both moral and doctrinal, whereas paganism and the New Age often amount to what I call ‘minimum-commitment spirituality.’ … [That] minimalism is attractive in itself. ‘Maximum-commitment spirituality’ is scary [to secular people]. And paganism much more easily allows for libertinism in our massively sexualized society.”

This view is echoed by Fred Wolff, former Wiccan/occultist and Catholic convert, who told the Register: “I think a lot of people see Christianity as being restrictive; you are, after all, accountable to God. Paganism is more ‘do what you want.’ ... There’s also the curiosity factor. … Wicca and most pagan practices can be very attractively packaged [by] the media … especially when you see ‘good witches’ fighting evil.”

This winter an historic event will take place in Iceland: For the first time in more than 1,000 years, a temple of the pagan Ásatrú religion will be completed.

Ásatrú was the old Norse pagan religion of the original Viking settlers of Iceland. 

The site for the construction of its latest temple, Hof Ásatrúarfélagsins, was donated by the city of Reykjavík. The Ásatrú society raised the funds for the temple, costing in the region of 130 million Icelandic kronas (approximately $1 million). The dome-shaped Hof Ásatrúarfélagsins will have a capacity for around 250 people, with the main part of the structure measuring 3,767 square feet. The temple’s design is based, according to its pagan custodians, on so-called “sacred geometry” and will have a ritual fire burning constantly at one end of its interior. It is within the new temple that the blót (the name given to the rituals of Ásatrú) will take place. This will include weddings, name-giving ceremonies and funerals.

Even without a temple, such ceremonies are already taking place. For example, among other pagan rituals, every year the priests of Ásatrúarfélagið have officiated at dozens of same-sex “marriages.”

Although this Hof Ásatrúarfélagsins will be Iceland’s first such building in 1,000-plus years, it is unlikely to be the last. Other municipalities have shown an interest in having similar temples built in different parts of the country. Some commentators have claimed that the pantheistic aspect of Ásatrú appeals to modern individualism, while at the same time seemingly upholding more recent Icelandic values, such as “honesty, tolerance and respect toward the environment.”

On the attractions of paganism for today’s Western society, Paul Thigpen, author and Catholic convert from the occult, told the Register: “I think that many of our European and American contemporaries are seeking in paganism or in more vague versions of ‘spirituality’ the consolations of religion without its moral and social constraints and commitments.”

He goes on to suggest that the seeming pagan emphasis on the forces of nature may not be simply about environmental concerns alone. “If they have no hope of a better world beyond this one, then they must be focused on controlling this one through magic and indulging in its pleasures before they die. For paganism, the good of this world becomes the supreme good.”

Iceland is not alone in seeing the re-emergence of a pagan past long since thought extinct.

In Denmark, in 2016, a new temple, Odins Hof (Valheim), was dedicated principally to the Norse god Odin. This is the first such temple to be constructed in Denmark since the coming of Christianity to Scandinavia between the eighth and the 12th centuries. It is the first time in more than a millennium Odin and other Nordic gods will have found public worship in a Danish temple. Ceremonies to mark the building’s consecration to Odin have included the sacrifice of “nine roosters,” all later consumed as a part of the sacrificial ritual.

The opening of this Odins Hof (Valheim) is hailed by some in Denmark as a new beginning for the land’s old ways. The official opening ceremony, for example, had in attendance not just Denmark’s neo-pagans, but also several Danish government ministers, with the ribbon cutting being undertaken by the leader of the Danish Parliament.

Odin, it seems, has followers in England, too. In August 2017, The Daily Telegraph reported how a group of pagans calling themselves the Odinist Fellowship had written to the archbishop of Canterbury demanding the return of two churches to make amends for those it claimed were “stolen” 1,300 years ago as part of a “spiritual genocide” on pagans by Christians.

In February 2018, an advertisement appeared on a U.K. government website seeking seven pagan chaplains to “minister to inmates at prisons around the country.” And Scotland’s health service introduced pagan chaplains back in 2007.

So should Catholics be worried about the latest neo-pagan trends in Europe?

For centuries the name “pagan” was something merely attached to an exhibit in a museum. The late 19th century saw a renewed interest in what was sometimes termed “the old religion.” The bohemian fin-de-siècle world of Europe’s artists rejected Christianity. In its place, they “discovered” more ancient beliefs that suited their worldview’s looser morals, or so they thought, for most scholars seem to agree that no one really knows what the Druids and other pagans of old actually believed or practiced.

So much of today’s pagan rituals apparently owe more to the metropolitan drawing rooms and literary salons of 19th-century Europe than the standing stones of pre-history.

Thigpen looks, however, to more recent manifestations of neo-paganism as to how this phenomenon can be manipulated: “Consider, for example, how some versions of paganism lead to tribalism, associating particular gods and ‘virtues’ with a particular people. When they gain large enough followings to exercise political power, they tend in the same arrogant and brutal directions as the Nazi movement, some of whose leadership actually professed an explicit neo-pagan ideology.”

Writing in the early 1930s in an essay entitled “The New Paganism,” Hilaire Belloc had this to say of the neo-paganism then appearing across Europe: “This New Paganism is already a world of its own. … [It] is certainly going to spread and occupy more and more of modern life. It is exceedingly important that we should judge rightly and in good time of what its effects will probably be, for we are going to come under the influence of those effects to some extent, and our children will come very strongly under their influence.”

He went on to describe the way in which this “New Paganism” was becoming manifest in “music that is discordant, building that is repellent, pictures that are a mere chaos, and it ridicules the logical process, so that, as I have said, it has made of the very word ‘logical’ a sort of sneer.”

Belloc saw the reemergence of paganism not as a return to something old, but an advance to a new world where the very bedrock of civilization itself was undermined by this re-emergence, for he viewed the coming of Christianity and the advance of civilization as one. Therefore, Belloc saw no gentle folk religion dislodging Christianity, but, instead, “barbarism” of the worst kind.

Looking at the then-emerging links between the Nazis and German neo-paganism, and the consequences that flowed from that, Belloc’s words appear eerily prophetic.

Needless to say, paganism not only has consequences for societies but, more specifically, for those individuals drawn into its orbit.

Thigpen has written widely on the subject of spiritual combat in today’s world. For that reason, he notes the rise of neo-paganism with growing concern, especially for those souls dazzled by its allures: “The practice of paganism at the individual level has its dangers. In my research for several books on spiritual warfare, I have seen repeatedly how those who revere false gods and seek to control the world through magic end up summoning demonic spiritual forces, often unwittingly. St. Paul warns us that: ‘What pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons’ (1 Corinthians 10:22).”

Belloc’s conclusion to “The New Paganism,” now nearly a century old, chimes with Thigpen’s thinking about our own times. While acknowledging the deep human need for the spiritual, Belloc went on to make this observation: “… But when the gods of the New Paganism come they will not be merely insufficient, as were the gods of Greece, nor merely false; they will be evil. … The New Paganism … will fall, before it knows where it is, into Satanism.” 

So will this be the end point of the current neo-pagan resurgence? Wolff, who was part of a Satanic coven before his conversion, sees the link alluded to by Belloc all too clearly: “There is a darker side. You can package it however you wish, but you’re still serving Satan. … The deeper you get into paganism, the harder it is to get out; the damage may have already been done. I was fortunate enough to get out before I hit the point of no return.”

He added: “All these things are drawing people farther and farther away from the God of the Bible and leading them straight into the arms of the enemy, Satan, who, by the way, is still very much alive and well.”

K.V. Turley writes from London.