A response to “The Return of the Pagans” by David Wolpe

Hoo boy.

I first became aware of this article from a social media post by John Beckett, whose work I admire. Unlike him, I am not constrained by a vacation schedule, so I’m going to let rip with my own response to this article.

Link here so you can get caught up.

Were you as offended and pissed off about that article as I was? Did you have trouble nailing down what, exactly, pissed you off about it?

Well, here are some thoughts.

Definition of pagan

My first and central issue with this article, is the fuzzy and pejorative definition of the term “pagan.”

“Take a close look at Donald Trump—the lavishness of his homes, the buildings emblazoned with his name and adorned with gold accoutrements, his insistent ego, even the degree of obeisance he evokes among his followers—and, despite the fervent support he receives from many evangelical Christians, it’s hard to avoid concluding that there’s something a little pagan about the man. Or consider Elon Musk. With his drive to conquer space to expand the human empire, his flirtation with anti-Semitic tropes, his 10 children with three different women, Musk embodies the wealth worship and ideological imperialism of ego that are more than a little pagan too.”

David Wolpe, https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/opinion/the-return-of-the-pagans/ar-AA1m0hy5

If you find yourself a little confused, the author explains in the second paragraph:

Most ancient pagan belief systems were built around ritual and magic, coercive practices intended to achieve a beneficial result. They centered the self. The revolutionary contribution of monotheism was its insistence that the principal concern of God is, instead, how people treat one another.


It’s a pretty big leap of logic to go from “ritual and magic” to “centered the self.” I’m gonna need to see a source on that. But I doubt there is one, because this is an opinion piece.

If you’ve ever read Homer’s Odyssey – and I’m guessing this author hasn’t – there are substantial non-Christian practices where the ritual and magic is the exact opposite of centering the self. Burnt offerings were sent to the gods to center them, so they wouldn’t fuck you over on a whim.

And don’t get me started on the idea of sacred hospitality, which is an inherently pro-social care for other people.

Even in Nature, you can walk out your front door and see how plants and animals take care of each other. Watch a mama squirrel carry her babies one at a time between nests. Read up on the ways trees share nutrients through underground root systems.

So no, monotheism did not, in fact, invent the idea of caring for others. And frankly, those of us who aren’t monotheists (or who are at least non-Abrahamic) are getting really fuckin’ tired of monotheists taking credit for shit that isn’t theirs. It’s like saying Jesus wrote the US Constitution. (Spoiler: he didn’t.)

But wait, it gets better.

“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.”


Deep breath.

That first line in the paragraph – “Although paganism is one of those catchall words…” – does the majority of the heavy lifting in this article, because the author has hung his whole misinformed fucking argument on this hedge. “Really, paganism can be anything, so here’s an opinion I knocked out without bothering to read anything about the topic.”

When he mentions Nature-worshippers – okay, I can let you lump pagans, neopagans, and other alternative spiritual paths under “sanctity of nature.” It’s not exactly accurate, but it’s at least less inaccurate than “paganism of the right is a kind of idolatry.” Idolatry is an Abrahamic construct. People who are actually pagan don’t know or care what idolatry is.

(This is a classic mistake made by people who are uneducated – using their current social paradigm as a universal measuring stick for other cultures. It’s inaccurate and fucking offensive.)

In this paragraph, the author is expanding the definition of the word “pagan” from simply “deification of nature” and “deification of power,” to “weird religions that I don’t like, can’t be bothered to understand, and why didn’t the British colonizers get rid of those yucky things centuries ago?”

Now, to be fair, the term “pagan” has been a bit pejorative since the Romans. Typically, it meant “folks who don’t practice the mainstream religion, and we think they’re kinda weird.” And honestly, it mostly means that in modern times too. But just for gits and shiggles, let’s consult the Oracle of Oxford on the topic:

1 a person who holds religious beliefs that are not part of any of the world’s main religions

2 (often disapproving) used in the past by Christians to describe a person who did not believe in Christianity

Origin: late Middle English: from Latin paganus ‘villager, rustic’, from pagus ‘country district’. Latin paganus also meant ‘civilian’, becoming, in Christian Latin, ‘heathen’ (i.e. one not enrolled in the army of Christ).


It would be fine if the author just stuck to “pagan” as defined as “not really Christian.” The problem is that he goes into great depth of explaining just exactly how these guys are pagan. And he gets it completely fucking wrong.

Modern paganism

Modern paganism, if you’re unfamiliar, is kind of an umbrella term that wraps up a bunch of non-Abrahamic, non-indigenous spiritual practices. So Wicca is pagan, Druidry is pagan, and there are also nature-based pagans. Some people consider Norse traditions to be pagan, and some don’t. But Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are Abrahamic, and thus not pagan. Also, the aboriginal traditions of Australia, and Native American traditions like Lakota or Wampanoag would not be considered pagan.

Now – why does the modern interpretation of paganism matter? Because the author invokes it. And he does so without bothering to ask what pagans – modern or ancient – are actually doing.

The current worship of wealth is a pagan excrescence.” Please, visit a Pagan spiritual gathering, and tell me more about how Pagans worship wealth. Half of us can barely afford our rent/mortgage. Also, poverty is a human invention to make poor people feel more spiritual. Note how church leaders have gold-plated buildings and jets, and their followers live in trailer parks. If you look at nature, there is no such moral code about getting resources. Squirrels hoard nuts and seeds. Lions gorge on a fresh kill. Rabbits reproduce rapidly when there’s more food available. Gathering resources is baked into nature. And humans – whom we can prove evolved from apes, and whom are part of the ecosystem regardless of whether we like it – have figured out that some of us can have more if we convince others that having less is actually better.

“Wealth is a cover for, or a means to, the ultimate object of worship in a pagan society, which is power.” Name one human being who doesn’t need power. Israel needs military power to dominate their geographical region. The Catholic Church is littered with the bones of opponents in its grasp of power. The US government is in a power struggle between a party that seeks to use power to help the common good, and a party that seeks to use power enrich the elite few. Again, nature plays with power all the time. Stags fight for dominance and mating with the herd of females. Lions contend with hyenas for a fresh kill. Seagulls wait till you’re not looking to steal your french fries. Power isn’t inherently bad – but you might tell people it’s bad if you don’t want them to have any.

“This worship of the body—of beauty, which is another form of power—is a pagan inheritance.” Now, this gets into some of that “material things are evil and sinful, but non-physical things are pure and holy” bullshit. If there is a god, and that god created everything we see, we can only conclude that he’s a colossal asshole for designing us in a way that our normal, natural desires are evil. And such a god isn’t really worthy of my devotion. Now, is it actually pagan? Probably – Dionysian and Aphroditean worshippers may, in the past, have considered the body and its delights sacred. What they didn’t do, is make the mistake of measuring their spiritual truths using the yardstick of someone else’s religion. Unlike the author.

“The veneration of physical beauty, the Instagramization of culture, is pagan to its roots.” Again, probably. But again, physical attraction is theorized to be related to fertility and fitness for parenting. So nature again – on a biological level. Also, I’ll make a bet that your browser history tells us just how pagan you are in your veneration for physical beauty.

“The virtue that falls furthest in the pagan pantheon of traits is humility.” So, I don’t know which version of Homer’s Odyssey you read, but turning a bunch of sailors into pigs seems a pretty object lesson in humility. In fact, the whole journey is about an overly egotistical dude getting slapped down and humbled. Not only that, many many cultures venerate their ancestors, and pray to them for guidance. I would think that asking for help from invisible friends – whether they’re spirits, gods, or ancestors – is pretty far from egotism.

“The Norse were people of conquest, rape, and pillage, at least in the popular imagination. That the right, which has long marched under the banner of Christian values, is beginning to embrace pagan symbols ought to be deeply troubling.” I mean, at least he kind of addressed the problematic trend of white supremacists taking up Norse spiritual traditions. But again, his hedge of “the popular imagination” does a lot of heavy lifting, because if he had bothered to read a fucking book or talk to a fucking Heathen/Norse practitioner, he might have learned that there’s more to Norse spirituality than “conquest, rape, and pillage.”

“But modern paganism is hardly confined to the political right. The left-wing movement to demote the status of human beings displays a complementary form of paganism.” Pagans treat animals as relatively equal to humans. So fucking what? Wanna know why pagans see humans as the equal of every other living creature on the planet? Because we can fucking prove it. Unlike the Abrahamic traditions, who have to rely on twisted interpretations of ancient myths to form their belief structure. I dunno, if I was a god, and I was designing a spiritual path for my kingdom to honor me, I’d make it a lot fuckin’ easier to read and understand.

“For those who believe that the pagan outlook has no consequences Well, one of the consequences is that if we can engage the brains of humans to treat all creatures on the planet as if they’re people, we would have a lot less violence and exploitation. Suffering begins when we treat people (and animals) like they are things. But I suppose that another consequence is that people who don’t follow your religious views aren’t donating and voting the way you want them to.

The logic problem

The author claims to use one definition of the word “pagan,” but then articulates his arguments from a different definition. And that’s just dishonest.

But really, the biggest issue is that I’m a practicing pagan, and I can’t find the faintest hint that the author bothered to ask what actual pagans practice. And then, he has the gall to hide behind hedges like “most ancient pagans,” or “in the popular imagination.”

Dude. You’re no better than someone with an 8th-grade education, working in a gas station, lecturing people online about vaccines and epidemiology. Just another privileged white dude with more opinion than education, who fumigates the room with his opinion like flatulence, assuming everyone else is the better for it.

Position of privilege

Which brings me to another point. It’s pretty clear that this guy has no fucking clue that there are actual pagans doing actual spiritual practices that honor nature and/or ancient spiritual paths.

And, as a pagan, I’m pretty used to that. Wanna know how many people wish me a happy solstice in the grocery store? None, that’s how many. (And somehow, it’s Christians that feel wronged when they don’t get a Merry Christmas. That’s privilege.)

Now, I would think that an author who self-identifies as Jewish would be a bit more cognizant of the power dynamic between a prestige and a non-prestige social group, especially in the context of religion. But maybe he just doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. (Though honestly, is it that hard to type the word “pagan” into Google and skim a few results?)

But there’s just this thread of arrogance woven throughout the whole essay, as if he thinks his way must be the One True Way™:

If we are nothing but animals, the laws of the jungle inevitably apply. If we are all pugilists attacking one another in a scramble to climb to the top of the pole, the laws of the jungle still apply. But if we are all children of the same God, all kin, all convinced that there is a spark of eternity in each person but that none of us is superhuman, then maybe we can return to being human.


“Laws of the jungle” – like the laws where different species cooperate with each other? Nature isn’t just competitive. If you bother to look, it is highly cooperative.

“Children of the same God” – who the fuck are you to tell me I’m a child of your god? Furthermore, who are you to tell me that only humans have the “spark of eternity?” Not animals, not plants. Just humans, and we’re all “kin,” “children of the same God.”

Nope – no thank you.

People who are in a position of privilege tend to assume that everyone else thinks and believes just like them. So it’s kind of a natural thing that this guy just assumes that everyone is sort of Christian, Jewish, or Islamic. But there are a lot of fuckin’ people on this planet that aren’t – Hindus, Buddhists, First Nations, Aborigines, and that doesn’t even count the really small groups.

And the implication – by not acknowledging his own limited perspective or privilege – is that everyone else should just get on board and believe the same way he does. As if he’s superhuman. As if we should bow to his insistent ego. As if he expects to be evoking obeisance in his readers. As if going along with his ideological imperialism will make the world better.

Presumption that “my way is correct/godly”

To me, this “my way is better than yours” is just as bad as any of the “pagan” vices the author listed in his essay. American Exceptionalism, British Imperialism, Manifest Destiny, the Chinese treatment of Uighurs – all of these (and more) have come about because one group of people thought they were better than another group of people.

Well that, and then they treated the other group like they were less than human. Sort of how the author suggests that we treat humans as superior to every other creature on the planet.

This guy is no different. “Worshiping money is pagan, therefore it is sinful and bad” seems to be his central point. And if we all just come together and worship the way he does, then we can all get along and go to heaven and be pure and treat each other better.


How about this. As a Pagan, I root my beliefs in things I can observe, or things that I can prove. And I treat each creature – animal, plant, or human – as a person, with its own needs, wants, and complexities.

That gives me the capacity to say that I respect the author’s right to believe and worship the way that he wants to, while simultaneously labeling it absolute bullshit and refusing to participate.

Here’s a thought – maybe we should be more pagan. We can act like squirrels, gathering nuts to keep our families fed through the winter, but inevitably forgetting some to be returned to the Earth to grow into new trees. Maybe we act like trees, sending nutrients and care and resources under the surface to other individuals who need them. Maybe we let our societies run like an ecosystem, where if one group overgrazes the foliage, there’s a massive die-off instead of diverting money to propping up a failing enterprise. Maybe we have seasons – a season of creation, of growth, of harvest, and of rest, and our society would be more healthy than being artificially kept in a state of constant growth. (Unregulated, unconstrained, unlimited growth resembles another feature found in nature – the genetic growth glitch we call cancer.)

Final thoughts

Like, what a fuckin’ douche.

Is there anything more privileged and arrogant than speaking so confidently and incorrectly about a topic you know nothing about?

I think I have a couple takeaways from this.

First, is to be mindful about what I know and what I don’t know. I’m pretty smart and well-educated, but I have to remind myself that there’s a lot I don’t know shit about. And before I let loose an opinion, maybe I should familiarize myself with the topic.

Second, is that modern paganism is invisible to a lot of Americans. Some people may know about Wicca. Rarely, people might know about white supremacists and Norse spirituality. But for the most part, no one who doesn’t practice these things really has any clue that they even exist. (And I’m not sure what to do about that, except to be aware of it.)

More thoughts? Drop me a line – dmkoffer at gmail dot com.