The Return of Paganism

Like European politicians who continue to block any mention of Christianity in the draft of the continent's Constitution, public officials around the globe increasingly are adopting measures that favor a return to pre-Christian paganism.

Denmark has announced it will allow a group that worships Thor, Odin and other Norse gods to conduct legally-valid marriages, the Associated Press reported Nov. 5. "It would be wrong if the indigenous religion of this country wasn't recognized," said Tove Fergo, the government Minister for Ecclesiastic Affairs and a Lutheran priest.

The 240-member Forn Sidr sought recognition in 1999, said its president, Tissel Jacobsen. About 1,000 people worship the ancient gods in Denmark, Jacobsen said.

Across the ocean, a U.S. federal judge in the state of Virginia ruled in favor of a Wiccan who was barred from saying a prayer to open a Chesterfield County board meeting. U.S. District Court Judge Dennis Dohnal said the board discriminated against Cyndi Simpson when it prohibited her from joining a list of clergy who deliver the invocations, the Associated Press reported Nov. 14.

Wiccans consider themselves witches, pagans or neo-pagans, and say their religion is based on respect for the earth, nature and the cycle of the seasons, according to the Associated Press. The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia and the Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed the lawsuit on behalf of Simpson after she was turned down by the board.

Wiccans are also active in Canada, where recently they celebrated the winter solstice, the Vancouver Sun reported Dec. 22. Heather Botting, a pagan chaplain at the University of Victoria, told the newspaper that the solstice, marking the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, is a sacred day.

An ex-Jehovah's Witness, Botting was appointed five years ago by university authorities. She is also authorized to perform marriages. At the university interfaith chapel, members of the 30,000-strong student body were able to mark the solstice with dances that paid to reverence to stag antlers as symbols of the cycle of life. Revelers dipped a ceremonial knife into a cast-iron cauldron of wine, to symbolize the unity of male and female divinity.

In the Greater Victoria area, population 280,000, more than 1,000 people officially told Canadian census-takers they were pagans, the Vancouver Sun said. Paganism is Canada's fastest-growing religion, according to Statistics Canada. There are 21,080 declared pagans in Canada.

The census figures underestimate Wicca's spread, claims Inar Hansen, vice president of the university's 150-member Thorn and Oak Student Pagan Club. Hansen maintains that tens of thousands of residents on Canada's West Coast practice paganism.

Meanwhile, in the state of Victoria, Australia, a legal battle is being played out between Olivia Watts, a self-proclaimed witch and transsexual, and Rob Wilson, a Christian.

The conflict began last June when Wilson, a council member in the Melbourne-area municipality of Casey, issued a statement warning against a satanic cult that was allegedly planning to take over the area, the Age newspaper reported Dec. 27. Watts, who was named in the statement by Wilson, took the matter to the Equal Opportunity Commission. The Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal will also look into Watts' case. Watts is getting help from the Sydney-based Pagan Awareness Network.

Rebirth for the Blairs

On Jan. 26 and 27, the Guardian newspaper in Britain published ample extracts from Francis Wheen's new book, "How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions." Wheen recounts the rise of gurus, spiritualists and assorted pagan beliefs. One of the most successful modern gurus is Deepak Chopra, who earns around $20 million a year. Since his 1993 appearance on the Oprah Winfrey television show -- which led to sales of 400,000 copies of his book within a week -- Chopra has authored 25 books. He heads the Chopra Center for Well-Being in La Jolla, California. His admirers run a wide gamut, from Michael Jackson to Mikhail Gorbachev and Hillary Clinton.

Wheen also recounts that Cherie Blair, wife of the British Prime Minister, is keen on alternative forms of spirituality. Her adventures include inviting a feng-shui expert to rearrange the furniture at 10 Downing Street, and wearing a "magic pendant" known as the BioElectric Shield, which has "a matrix of specially cut quartz crystals" that surround the wearer with "a cocoon of energy" to ward off evil forces. Both Cherie and Tony Blair underwent a Mayan rebirthing experience while on holidays in Mexico in 2001.

Also increasingly popular in England is Kabbalah, an ancient Hebrew philosophy. At London's Kabbalah Center -- whose premises were reportedly paid for by the singer Madonna for 3.5 million pounds ($6.3 million) -- followers can buy books, sign up for a 10-week course, or buy bottles of Kabbalah water, the Financial Times reported Dec. 20.

According to recent figures, fewer than 3% of Londoners are now regular churchgoers. At the same time, non-Christian practices such as Kabbalah, Buddhism, Hinduism and crystal healing are flourishing, the newspaper noted.

"For many westerners, particularly women, it has become the norm to master Buddhist chanting in a meditation class, learn about ancient Hindu philosophies during a yoga class, light an (aromatherapy) candle and say a prayer (to a nameless God) back at home," commented the article. A further sign of the triumph of alternative spiritualities came with the recent appointment of a spirituality editor by the British womens magazine Cosmopolitan.

Christless Christmas

While paganism gains legal protection, Christianity continues to be singled out for exclusion. Last Christmas season, for example, the British Red Cross banned the mention of Jesus from its shops, the Sun newspaper reported Nov. 11. Also barred were Christmas cards with nativity scenes and Advent calendars showing Mary and Joseph and the three wise men.

Meanwhile, the Christmas card sent out by the United Kingdom's culture secretary, Tessa Jowell, featured Hindu dancers and drawings of mosques, the Telegraph reported Dec. 7. What the card failed to show was anything about Jesus or Christmas.

And, in Australia, the Victorian state minister for transport, Peter Batchelor, opted for a Christmas card with an Aboriginal dream scene, without any Christian reference, the Age reported Dec. 19.

Scotland's Parliament also abolished any reference to Christianity in its cards. That was too much, even for self-declared agnostic Jim Sillars, who complained of the move in a commentary published by the Scotsman newspaper on Dec. 3. "Such decisions aren't a matter of showing greater tolerance of non-Christian religions," observed Sillars. "I have yet to meet the Jew, Muslim, Hindu or Sikh who has ever objected to us having Christ as the center of Christmas. Take Christ out and you have a pagan celebration."

Delving into the reason behind anti-Christian prejudices, Christine Odone, deputy editor of the British magazine New Statesman, commented that the "chattering classes" share a common prejudice against Christians. In an extract of the annual Tyndale lecture given by Odone and published Oct. 28 in the Guardian, she noted that in an era that prizes individual freedom, Christians believe in authority and have a clear sense that there is a right and a wrong.

"Moral certainty grates against the spirit of the age," she observed. And this certainty "throws into relief the brittle edifice that houses the secularist's morals." Re-Christianizing an increasingly pagan society will not be easy.