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Our Godless era is dead


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A second religiousness is sweeping the West
Paul Kingsnorth

Dec, 23 2023

Sometimes I think I’ve been lied to my whole life.

Everyone, everywhere, lives by a story. This story is handed to us by the culture we grow up in, the family that raises us, and the worldview we construct for ourselves as we grow. The story will change over time, and adapt to circumstances. When you’re young, you tend to imagine that you have bravely pioneered your own story. After all, the whole world revolves around you. As you age, though, you begin to see that much of what you believe is in fact a product of the time and place you were young in.

In my case, the time and place was Britain in the Eighties and Nineties, and the story we were immersed in then already seems like the product of a long-gone era. It was made up of the fading Christian heritage of England, the liberalism which had replaced it, an Enlightenment-era faith in science, reason and “progress”, and the much newer afterglow of the Sixties sexual revolution. This mess somehow gave birth to the weird combination of radical individualism and authoritarian thought-control that stalks the culture now.


A feast without a fast is a strange, half-finished thing: this is something I’ve only learned recently. We are coming up to the greatest annual feast of all, the one that most people, whether Christian or not, are going to end up celebrating. I’ve celebrated Christmas all my life, mostly with no religious trappings, and I’ve always loved it — more so since I became a father. But Christmas, in historical terms, is only one of a number of great feasts that make up the Christian ritual year, which was once — and still is in those parts of the world which continue to take it seriously — studded with saints days, festivals, processions, and feasts.

The Christmas feast is the last remnant, in the secular West, of this ritual year that made us. Since I unexpectedly became a Christian three years ago, I have thrown myself into it with the predictable gusto of a new convert, and it has helped me to understand something about the world I grew up in: we wanted the feasts without the fasts. This, in fact, is the basis of our economic model.

In the Eastern Orthodox Church into which I was baptised, as in the pre-Reformation Catholic Church in Europe, Christmas, like Easter, is preceded by a long fast. The Orthodox fast for 40 days before both major holy festivals, which are then marked by several days of feasting. The fast, as I can currently attest, sharpens the feast. It counts down the days, it provides a communal experience — everyone in the Church is following the same fasting rules together — and most of all it trains the body and the mind to do without, in the service of focusing on something higher. That, at least, is the theory. After doing this for 40 days, Christmas lunch certainly tastes better.


In response, we are now beginning to see a resurgence in genuine religion. Personally, and anecdotally, I am noticing this everywhere. In American Orthodox churches bursting with young families. In atheists or neo-pagans suddenly becoming Christians (I plead guilty). In my own speaking events about Christianity, which are suddenly inexplicably popular, and not because of me. Others I know report the same thing: for the first time in a long while, people are beginning to take faith seriously again. Actual religion — the thing that was supposed to die a slow death at the hands of reason — is emerging slowly from the shadows as the new paganism takes hold.

But as Spengler himself warned, there is no guarantee that a “second religiousness” will be an entirely benevolent thing. Knowing what we do of human history, in fact, we can pretty much guarantee that it won’t. There have always been two kinds of religion, or perhaps two ways of responding to religious teachings. There is the internal or mystical response, and then there is the worldly or political one. In Christian terminology, we might call these the way of the world and the way of the kingdom. Christ taught that the path home to God — which is the path to the true self — is a narrow one, and that few ever find it. He also explained that God was to be found not in the clouds or in the stars, but in every human heart. The Christian Way, as its first followers referred to it, is in other words a path of internal transformation — what the Orthodox call the “unseen warfare” that goes on in the heart every minute. The battle between the way of God and the way of the world: every religion I know of teaches some version of this.

Being human, though, we like to take these teachings and overlay them onto the world. In Christian history, this has often taken the form of crusading — sometimes literally — to transform the kingdom of Man into the kingdom of God by force. Unfortunately, since the people doing the crusading have not first fought their own unseen war to transform themselves, they end up falling into a neat little trap set by the devil, and transforming the Church into an instrument of repression, or simply a vehicle for worldly political activism. This can apply equally to liberal Christians who want to remake the Church in the rainbow flag-bedecked image of the “social justice” Left, and to conservative Christians who want Jesus to lead their battle to defend “faith, flag and family” against the woke libs.


Western culture seems in many ways to be visibly collapsing before our eyes. Our nations, our family structures, our communities, our assumptions, our ecosystems: everything is under strain, under attack or bursting at the seams. What is the cause? Is it mass immigration? Is it post-modern relativism? Is it the woke Left? Is it the far-Right? And what is the solution? Is it a robust defence of “enlightenment values”? Is it writing free speech into law? Is it border control? Is it even more YouTube videos?

I think that all of this is just a form of temporary displacement activity. I think the real story is that our religious sensibility is slowly revealing itself to us again, emerging blinking into the light; our instincts are trying to return to their source. On some level we perhaps know this, but we are holding it off as long as possible, because to turn around and look into the light would be to accept that our whole culture has been trailing down a dead-end road since the Enlightenment. We can’t look at that fact, so we look at absolutely everything else instead. But the confrontation can’t be put off forever.

The biggest lie my culture told me was that matter was dead, along with God, and that humans could reason their way to freedom. Reason has its uses — it is a gift we are given, and we should wield it, like technology, as wisely as we can. But at root, humans are fundamentally spiritual animals. The future is not atheists in space. The future, like the past, will be religious. Even the the rationalists and the soldiers-of-Enlightenment are wobbling on the ground from which they once scoffed so proudly at the babushkas and the saints. It may be that the new gyre is beginning, quietly, to turn.


I remember the first time I tentatively stepped into an Orthodox church to attend a Divine Liturgy. I had no idea what to do, or what to expect, or whether I even really wanted to be there. From the outside, to the Western mind, it all looks intimidatingly Byzantine — not to mention extremely long. But something happens when you stand, immersed in it all. You come to feel as if you are being carried down a great timeless river to an almost unfathomable destination that you could never reach on your own. But of course, you are not on your own. Not now. You will never be on your own again. You have come home.

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