My Response to The Atlantic's The Return of the Pagans
Hellenism's solutions to Wolpe's woes.
The Atlantic published a problematic piece this past Christmas titled, The Return of the Pagans: Hug a tree or a dollar bill, and the pagan in you shines through by David Wolpe. Wolpe is the Max Webb Senior Rabbi Emeritus of Sinai Temple and a visiting scholar at Harvard Divinity School. This fact makes this article more disappointing given that such an educated person ought to have better knowledge of paganism; one would think – however, Wolpe displays his ignorance about paganism throughout his article.
Many in the Pagan community have responded to Wolpe’s article. Professor Sabina Magliocco took to Facebook to share her letter to the editor voicing her concerns. In short, Magliocco expresses deep disappointment with The Atlantic for publishing David Wolpe's "The Return of the Pagans," criticizing it for its inaccurate portrayal of paganism. Magliocco argues that Wolpe fails to properly define "pagan," instead presenting a distorted view that conflates it with idolatry. This misrepresentation harms the understanding of various pagan traditions, including Classical, Indigenous, and modern practices. Magliocco also highlights Wolpe's historical inaccuracies and misunderstandings about the nature of ancient religions, particularly regarding their values and practices. This critique underscores the broader issue of how minority religions are often misrepresented and misunderstood, emphasizing the need for more accurate and respectful discourse.
I fully support Magliocco’s letter to the editor and wish to add to the conversation. While I do not identify as a Pagan, I do find Wolpe’s article troubling since any conversation about ancient paganism is without doubt going to touch on the Greeks, and that is my area of focus. I want to respond to those specific points where he uses the Greeks in his arguments.
Before that, I want to say that I do not share the opinion that Wolpe is attacking Pagans, as it is being framed in the Pagan community (see the Wild Hunt’s coverage). I do not think Wolpe has modern Pagans on his mind, nor does he allude to modern Paganism as a religion. With that said, his ideas can harm Pagans inadvertently. I say this because, throughout the article, the spellings used are lowercase pagan and paganism. This spelling convention is used in fields such as history to talk about ancient religions; historians have adopted the Christian usage of pagan to refer to polytheists in historical discourse for simplicity.
With this said, it seems that, as Magliocco pointed out, Wolpe may not even be using pagan in any academic sense either. He never defines pagan in his article and is likely using it as a strawman in his commentary on today’s society and issues as a monotheist would. Pagan is being deployed as a polemical tool to identify the ‘problems’ in society today – both on the political left and right. Christians are known to also deploy the term pagan today in their commentary on societal issues; everything unchristian-like in value or behavior is described to be pagan. So overall, Wolpe is using pagan and paganism to represent what is ideologically opposite to him from a monotheistic point of view.
Although paganism is one of those catchall words applied to widely disparate views, the worship of natural forces generally takes two forms: the deification of nature, and the deification of force. In the modern world, each ideological wing has claimed a piece of paganism as its own. On the left, there are the world-worshippers, who elevate nature to the summit of sanctity. On the right, you see the worship of force in the forms of wealth, political power, and tribal solidarity. In other words, the paganism of the left is a kind of pantheism, and the paganism of the right is a kind of idolatry. Hug a tree or a dollar bill, and the pagan in you shines through. (David Wolpe)
Concerning Wolpe’s presentation of Greek thought (Hellenism), I want to critique one thing for my post. Wolpe writes that Greek culture did not highly regard humility as a virtue, especially compared to the values upheld in monotheistic religious traditions. Instead, the Epics glorify traits such as strength, bravery, and personal glory, reflecting a societal admiration for dominance and superiority. The Epics are used as a lens to view modern society, drawing parallels between the ancient Greek valorization of personal achievement and the contemporary world's similar tendencies. The implication is that today's societal values, much like those of ancient Greece, often prioritize personal power and external success over the humility and modesty revered in many religious traditions, suggesting a modern resurgence of what the author terms 'pagan' values.
It is easy to point to the Homeric epics in a monotheist's strawman argument because many are familiar with the epics and the deeds of figures such as Achilles and Odysseus to some degree. It is also straightforward to contrast bronze-age hero morality in the Homeric Epics with the morality of Christians many centuries later. It is much harder to make your argument if you want to compare the philosophical traditions, such as Platonism, since Christianity was so profoundly influenced by Greek philosophical thought a general audience reading The Atlantic will likely zone out at the depth required for that comparison.
Wolpe’s presentation of humility is simply the acknowledgment of human limitations and a respectful understanding of one's place in the broader order of existence. This is not unique to monotheism, and I would say it is a reimagined Greek idea. Namely, the Greek concept of hubris - an individual's excessive pride or self-confidence, which often leads to their downfall.
Also, Socrates displays intellectual humility when he acknowledges that the only thing he knows for sure is that he knows nothing, which contrasts with the people he questions who claim they know something and can provide answers but fail when questioned by Socrates.
Greek thought (Hellenism) has the means to deal with and address Wolpe’s woes. Wolpe writes that “[m]onotheism, at its best, acknowledges genuine humility about our inability to know what God is and what God wishes.” One part of Greek philosophy (epistemology) is concerned true knowledge and how we can truly know something. Throughout the dialogues of Plato, self-knowledge is a recurring theme. Understanding oneself is crucial for understanding broader concepts. If one is ignorant about oneself, they'll likely be ignorant about higher truths, including the nature of the gods.
This leads me to highlight the concept of double ignorance. Double ignorance refers to a state where an individual is ignorant and unaware of their own ignorance. This condition is often accompanied by a sense of false confidence or arrogance, where the person believes they possess knowledge or understanding that they lack. Double ignorance is a major barrier to philosophical inquiry and personal growth. It's a state that individuals must overcome to begin the journey toward true knowledge and self-awareness.
If Wolpe is worried that society is too concerned with things like the pursuit of material success, the obsession with physical beauty, and the drive for technological and territorial conquest, Greek philosophy has solutions to these issues and more. One does not have to reduce the solution to humility, nor does anyone have to seek out monotheism as the best path for solutions to our problems.