The term “New Age” is a pretty all encompassing definition for any religion/path/movement that falls outside a traditionally established religious structure. That’s a broad definition and a bit of an over generalisation but I’m using it for my purpose today in exploring why Paganism, Wicca, Witchcraft, Druidism etc. have experienced such a popular revival in recent years and why the traditional churches are fast losing their congregations.
Christianity has been the predominant religion of the Western world since well before the Middle Ages, it was the primary religion of the late Roman Empire (adopted circa 4 BC) and to date is the world’s largest religion (beating the second largest - Islam by approx 0.5 billion adherants).The Christian religion is based on the books of both the Old and the New Testament of the Bible with particular emphasis on the teachings of Jesus Christ in the New Testament. (Christ, incidentally, whether you believe him to be the son of God or not indisputedly existed. History confirms that there was a Jesus of Nazareth, it’s the virgin birth bit that historians debate).
The twentieth century saw a change in the fortunes of Christianity. Churches that had once been packed to the brim with eager worshippers started to empty. Conventional religion started to lose its impact for the masses and in its place an alternative religious wave began to emerge, replacing traditional dogma with freedom of spirituality and giving people a chance and a choice to make up their own minds as to what role (if any) religious belief would play in their lives.
When we speculate about why Christianity is no longer as popular as it once was, there are many factors to consider. Crucially and certainly in my opinion, the Christian church has failed to move with the times. We live in a world of scientific discovery and any religion wishing to retain its believers needs to learn to move with the times. It is simply not logical to follow a faith that denies something as basic as Evolution (not all Christians deny this by the way..). It switches people off. And it makes people question the fundamental beliefs of the religion, if you can be so wrong about one thing, chances are you might be wrong about a whole lot more and that makes the foundations of religious belief rather shaky and not necessarily all that attractive to follow.
Christianity (Catholicism in particular) is also mired down in the morals of yesterday. In a world with the health concerns of HIV and hepatitus or the economic concerns of unwanted children, it is simply not reasonable not to approve contraception. This failure to move with the times makes it difficult for those in the modern world to adhere to the strict commandments of the faith. And gradually they start to drift away from the church...
Christianity is a very morally dogmatic religion. And in a world of permissive cultures it is hard to find the meaning in some of the more archaic concepts such as homosexuality is a sin, witchcraft is evil etc. Such moral imperatives are divisive and force people to break away from the church if they are to live their life in a way that makes them happy. It is hardly surprising that huge groups of people, unwilling to think their natural inclinations are bad or evil are moving from the church and turning to less judgemental faiths. As long as the church continues to uphold anachronistic moral imperatives, it will continue to flounder in the modern age. People want to think for themselves and any church who refuses to let them do so is doomed to a long lingering death. In denying the principle of live and let live, the church is closing its doors to huge sections of the community.
The shift in the cultural paradigm is particularly interesting in relation to Wicca and Goddess worship. Historically we have lived in a male governed society but in the modern age women have finally achieved the equality they have always sought. Again, Christianity is preaching values that modern people find hard to identify with. A patriarchal God is no longer a valid figure for the time we live in. Should we be surprised that worship of a dual male/female deity is more popular than it ever has been? Is overcoming the inherent sexism in religion the last hurdle to achieving equality between the sexes?
Modern lifestyles have also played their part in reducing the appeal of worship in a structured environment. People lead busy lives, many for example work on Sundays when Christian churches typically choose to meet. It is no longer as easy as it was in times gone by to make the time to join a congregation for worship. People are moving from group worship to individual worship which fits in better with the life they lead. And as they move from the formal structure of worship, the Christian church loses the opportunity to preach to these people and gradually they seek religions or spiritual paths that better fit with their needs.
The focus on individuality is a massive cultural shift since the latter half of the twentieth century. The concept of the individual has become for the first time greater than that of the community. We are concerned with individual needs and values and consequently the validity of beliefs is no longer confirmed by group consensus but by individual belief. As such, people are looking less for an absolute one size fits all morality and more for a unique morality that fits what they personally believe as an individual. Christiantiy fails to cater for these people. It remains fixated on an absolute morality and refuses admittance to those who cannot believe it. This turns off the people who want to think for themselves and they refuse to subsume their own beliefs to join the Christian church. It is perhaps unsurprising that they choose to practise their personal faith in a way that does not require them to compromise their own views on morality.
Incidentally, morality is also a concern for the Christian church in that it retains a slightly prudish view on all things sexual. As society develops, the cultural ideal of what is morally acceptable also changes. Definitions change, in the modern world, the definitions of sexual identity have blurred, we are no longer limited to heterosexual men and women, we have transsexuals, pansexuals, polytheists, cissexual, gender neutral, hetero/homo/bisexuals and even neutrois (identification with no gender). My point being that a modern religion needs to acknowledge this. Sex, sexually permissive behaviour, sexual non conformity and gender fluidity are all still viewed as a sin and this just doesn’t reflect the thinking of individuals in a modern world. Sex has lost its power to shock with the only remaining exception being that of the traditional church. So people seek out alternatives, Neo Pagan paths in the main welcome and honour sexuality. (We witches are quite hot on the old Great rite as well.) Sex isn’t dirty and forbidden, it’s embraced as part of who we are, as both a physical pleasure and even as a spiritual release.
Just as individuality plays a bigger part today in our relationship with religion, it also has a bigger role to play in the relationships we have with our deities. Traditional religion has usually involved the idea of intercession, a priest or holy figure standing between the lay man and his God. As we focus ourselves more inwardly, the question of whether that intercession is still needed today arises. When the hierarchy of the church's religious figures is put to one side, can each individual not approach the God/s on his own and for himself? Is there anything to be gained by going through a third party? In some ways the rejection of Christianity is not a rejection of God him/herself as an entity but a rejection of the convoluted way God has traditionally been approached. Paradoxically by turning away from organised religion and finding that one on one connection with the deities, those who choose to do so are often not turning from God but finding a new way to worship more intimately. One could argue that the direct spirituality of the new age religions marks a straighter way to the deities than the indirect ambling of the Christian church.
Education has also played its part in the dwindling numbers of the Christian church. There used to be a time when only the elite educated read the bible and interpreted it for the masses. Now every person who wants to read it for themselves can, leading to a much more varied wealth of interpretation (some of it entirely nonsensical and I’m thinking specifically of the Westboro Baptist Church with their silly little crusade against the gays and the Jehovah’s Witnesses who would rather let their children die than give them blood transfusions. Sometimes a little education really can be dangerous in the wrong hands…) But education has also allowed people to question both the origins of the Bible and the relevance of a book that has been translated in and out of more languages than any other since book binding began. It is hard to believe that the writings of a few wise men over 1000 years ago actually do represent the word of God. It is perhaps even harder to think that after the many revisions to the book, the words we read today actually bear any relation to the words originally written. People are not turning their back on the word of God, they are exhibiting scepticism that the Christian church actually has any right to claim knowledge of the word of God. And if Christianity has no more knowledge of God than the rest of us, what's to stop people from looking for new and different ways to assert their own individual beliefs?
We live in a world where nature is becoming more and more scarce and natural beauty harder to find. Where once we experienced nature in abundance, there is now a void in our lives that is unfulfilled by concrete and man made structures. Perhaps it is then understandable that our appreciation of nature has grown and the new age nature based religions have grown in tandem with it. We are starting to see the value in the beauty of our planet and as we begin to appreciate our diminishing greenery we naturally look toward a more nature based worship. It would possibly not be too optimistic a speculation to wonder whether it will be this shift in religious belief that finally spurs us on to save our planet before it is too late. I hope so.
For me, the gradual turn away from Christianity can most likely be attributed to the manner in which the Christians have turned from the simple lessons of their own teachings. Jesus Christ suggested man: “Love God and Love thy neighbour.” Now I'm a witch, not a Christian but I can get behind that, its simple, easy to follow and fundamentally good advice for how to live your life. But as Christianity has allowed itself to get immersed in moral debate and religious dogma it has moved further and further from these common sense roots and the simple truth now is that Christianity as a main stream religion no longer preaches the message of Christ. This leaves the door of the new age religions wide open and welcoming for those who seek a greater degree of spirituality in their lives, for those who want to live without judging or being judged, for those who want a simple and direct relationship with their deities and most importantly for those who want to think for themselves and find their own path to walk. For finding our own way to walk through the world is as much as any of us can ever really hope for.
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