Excerpted from Alain de Benoist, Comment Peut-on Etre PaÃ¯en? (Paris: Albin Michel, 1981), translation by Irmin Benoist.
In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Renaissance was genuinely a re-naissance, a rebirth. “It involved,” as Ernest Renan said, “seeing Antiquity face to face.” Yet that rebirth was not a journey backward nor a simple resurgence of the past, but on the contrary a point of departure for a new spiritual adventure, a new adventure of the Faustian soul, henceforth triumphant because finally awakened to itself. Today “neo-paganism,” likewise, is not a regression. It is, on the contrary, the deliberate choice of a more authentic future, more harmonious, more powerful — a choice that projects into the future, for new creations, the Eternal from which we come.
If one acknowledges that something is great, Heidegger says, “then in the beginning of that greatness there remains something still greater.” Paganism today clearly requires, in the first place, a certain familiarity with ancient Indo-European religions, their history, their theology, their cosmogony, their symbolic system, their myths and the mythemes of which they are composed — familiarity of knowledge, but also spiritual familiarity; epistemological familiarity, but also intuitive familiarity. Paganism is not only a matter of accumulating knowledge about the beliefs of the various regions of Europe, nor can we ignore the features that distinguish them, often profoundly. Paganism also requires, above all, identifying the projection of those beliefs, the transposition of a certain number of values which, as heirs to a culture, belong to us and concern us directly. (That, as a consequence, leads to reinterpreting the history of the last two millennia as the story of a fundamental spiritual combat.)
This recovery of pagan traditions is a considerable task. Not only do the religions of old Europe cede nothing to monotheism in their richness or their spiritual and theological complexity, but we can even say that on this terrain they often prevail. Yet whether pagan religions are indeed more rich and more complex than monotheism is not the most important issue. What is important is that they speak to us, and for my part I draw more lessons from the symbolic contrast of Janus and Vesta, more ethical understanding from the Oresteia or from the account of Ymir’s dismemberment, than from the adventures of Joseph and his brothers or the story of the aborted murder of Isaac.
Beyond the myths themselves, it is advisable to look for some conception of divinity and of the sacred, some system of interpretation of the world, some philosophy. Even to declare disbelief in the existence of God, as Bernard-Henri LÃ©vy does, presupposes an implicit monotheism. Our epoch still remains profoundly Judeo-Christian in how it conceives history and in the essential values it assumes, even though the churches and synagogues have emptied. Conversely, a pagan need not believe literally in Jupiter or Wotan, although that would be no more ridiculous than a literal belief in Jehovah. Contemporary paganism does not consist in erecting altars to Apollo or reviving the worship of Odin. It implies instead looking behind the religion and, according to a procedure henceforth traditional, seeking the “mental equipment” of which the religion is the product, the interior universe it reflects, the form of apprehending the world it denotes. In short, it implies considering the gods as “centers of values” (H. Richard Niebuhr) and the beliefs of which they are the object as systems of values. The gods and the beliefs pass, but the values remain.
That is to say that paganism, far from being characterized by a denial of spirituality or a rejection of the sacred, consists on the contrary in the choice (and the reappropriation) of another spirituality, of another form of the sacred. Far from being confounded with atheism or agnosticism, it interposes, between man and the universe, a fundamentally religious relationship, which in its spiritual quality seems to us much more intense, more serious, stronger than what Judeo-Christian monotheism can lay claim to. Far from desacralizing the world, it sacralizes it in the literal sense of the term, since it regards it as sacred, and it is precisely therein that it is pagan. Thus, as Jean Markale writes, “paganism is not the absence of God, the absence of the sacred, the absence of ritual. Quite the contrary, it is the solemn affirmation of transcendence, which begins with the recognition that the sacred no longer resides in Christianity. Europe is never more pagan than when she searches for her roots, which are not Judeo-Christian.”
Spirituality, the sense of the sacred, faith, belief in the existence of God, religion as ideology, religion as system and as institution — all are very different notions and do not necessarily intersect, and they are no longer univocal. There are religions that do not have any God (Taoism, for example); belief in God does not necessarily imply belief in a personal God. On the other hand, to imagine that all religious concerns could be permanently removed from mankind is, in our eyes, pure fantasy. Faith is neither repression nor illusion, and the best human reason can do is recognize that reason alone is not sufficient to exhaust all man’s inner aspirations. As Schopenhauer observes: “Man is the only being who is astonished by his own existence; a brute animal lives in its tranquillity and is astonished by nothing … This astonishment, which occurs especially in the face of death and in view of the destruction and disappearance of all other beings, is the source of our metaphysical needs; it is because of this that man is a metaphysical animal.” The need for the sacred is a fundamental human need, in the same way as food or copulation. (If some choose to forgo any of these, so much better for them.) Mircea Eliade notes that “the experience of the sacred is a structure of consciousness,” which one cannot hope to do without. Man needs some belief or some religion — we distinguish here religion from ethics — as ritual, as actions that comfort him by their unvarying regularity, forming part of the habitual patterns by which he is constructed. In this respect, the recent appearance of genuine disbelief is among those phenomena of decline that are destructuring man in what makes him distinctively human. (Is the man who has lost the capacity or the desire to believe still a man? One can at least pose the the question.)
“It is possible,” RÃ©gis Debray writes, “to have a society without God; it is not possible to have a society without religion.” He adds: “States on the way to disbelief are also on the way to abdication.” George Bataille’s remarks are also pertinent: “Religion, the essence of which is the search for a lost intimacy, is essentially an effort of the clear consciousness to become entirely self-awareness.” That is enough to condemn Western liberalism. We would certainly give Judeo-Christianity too much credit if we rejected all the concepts over which it claims a monopoly simply because it has claimed them. We need not reject the idea of God or the concept of the sacred simply because of the sickly form in which Christianity has expressed them, any more than we must break with aristocratic principles simply because they have been caricatured by the bourgeoisie.
We should note as well that in pre-Christian antiquity the word “atheism” is practically meaningless. Ancient trials for “unbelief” or “impiety” are generally concerned, in reality, with other offenses. When the pagan historian Ammianus Marcellinus remarks that “there are some people for whom the sky is empty of gods,” he specifies that they do believe, nevertheless, in magic and in the stars. In Rome it was the Christians who were accused of “atheism,” since they showed no respect to images of the gods or to places of worship. In Greece, rational thought itself only reoriented theogony and mythical cosmology. That is why Claude Tresmontant, after having gratuitously likened pantheism to “atheism,” is compelled to write that the latter is “eminently religious,” that in fact “it is far too religious, since it unduly divinizes the universe.” In ancient Europe, the sacred was not conceived in opposition to the profane, but rather embraced the profane and gave it meaning. There was no need for a Church to mediate between man and God; the whole city itself effected this mediation, and religious institutions constituted only one aspect of it. The conceptual antonym of Latin religio would be the verb negligere. To be religious is to be responsible, not to neglect. To be responsible is to be free — to possess the concrete means of exercising a practical liberty. To be free is also, at the same time, to be connected to others through a common spirituality.
When LÃ©vy remarks that “monotheism is not a form of sacrality, a form of spirituality, but on the contrary, the hatred of the sacred as such,” his comment is only apparently paradoxical. The sacred involves unconditional respect for something; yet monotheism, in a literal sense, outlaws such respect, placing it outside the Law. For Heidegger, the sacred, das Heilige, is quite distinct from traditional metaphysics and from the very idea of God. We say, to use an antimony favored by Emmanuel LÃ©vinas, that the sacred vests itself as a mystery in this world, that it is based on an intimacy between man and the world, in contrast to holiness, which relies on the radical transcendence of the Other. Paganism sacralizes and thereby exalts this world, whereas Judeo-Christian monotheism sanctifies, and thereby deducts from and diminishes it.