The applicant for our research fellowship was a likeable physician who spoke with passion about the mind-brain problem. My professional world is overrun by people who believe that, if we just do enough imaging studies, in which a subject works on some cognitive test while complex machinery detects which parts of the brain are activated, we will understand how the mind results from the brain. The applicant’s career plan was common enough in our setting, but something about our conversation bothered me for days.
His name suggested a family history of Catholicism, although he, like many scientists, had abandoned Christianity long ago. It would take him years to acquire the technical background he needed to do independent work; during that time, his salary would be a third of what he could make as a clinician or a member of a medical school’s faculty. Despite his apostasy, he proposed to undertake a long, scientific novitiate, complete with a vow of poverty. Perhaps some vestigial ecclesiastic impulse remained.
It gradually dawned on me that his itch was religious, not scientific. He was filled with wonder that we have minds, but he had turned to science to deal with the mystery. The wonders of God’s hand so surround us that they can be found even in the neuroimaging lab, and a scientist might reasonably understand his work to be part of his worship. I have felt awe as I stared through the lens of a microscope at the swirling, cresyl-stained galaxies in the rodent brain. Neuroscience is a fine thing, but a religious impulse cannot be satisfied if you don’t identify it as such. To look to science to give meaning to life is to fill the God-shaped hole in our hearts with something shaped like a man.
My conversation with our applicant led me to wonder how the rest of the irreligious deal with their hunger for God. A nine-year-old girl helped me learn more. In order to please her, I often find myself in movie theaters, giving money to companies of which I don’t approve. Sitting in the dark with her and her mother, I have found paganism on the screen.
The pagans’ cosmology differs fundamentally from that of the monotheistic West. A Christian, contemplating the complexity of mind and brain, will eventually think of the single Mind that made them. To the pagan, there is no single, uniting intelligence or will behind the world. Instead, there are many independent powers, each with a limited range, and an impersonal Fate or a repeating cosmic cycle may be more powerful than the gods. Given the pagan worldview, it is only wise to try to propitiate as many of the spirits as possible. However, doing so is difficult, as no authoritative scriptures tell us how to conduct ourselves in accord with divine will, and the gods’ intentions remain unclear. We Christians believe that God has placed mankind on the earth because of His great interest in us, and that He has left us clear directives. The pagan thinks we are minor players, almost an afterthought, and more likely to be hurt because we have gotten in the way than to have a continuing relationship with the divine.
Hollywood despises the religious tradition of the West, but there is money to be made in speaking to our deepest needs. A pagan cosmology is now common in children’s movies, especially those made by Disney. The Lion King didn’t have human protagonists, but its success showed the commercial potential of paganism. Its cosmology is revealed when the lion princeling is lectured by his father about the circle of life: Grass is eaten by antelopes; the lions eat the antelopes; and, when the lions die, they, in turn, feed the grass. True enough, but the formal tricks of film—music, acting, camera work—tell us we are involved in a conversation of great spiritual weight. The origin of this circle is not named, but there is no suggestion it is a personal God.
In Brother Bear, an American Indian boy is killed by a bear. His younger brother swears vengeance against all bears but becomes one himself. At one point, we see the spirits of animals and humans in a vast, swirling procession in the sky, but we don’t know if one of them, or an impersonal Fate, changed the boy into the bear. The irony of the boy’s problem is enough for the pagan mind.
In Atlantis: The Lost Empire, a young man travels to Atlantis, where he finds an advanced but dying civilization. Mysterious crystals are the key to Atlantean technology, but, for some reason, the crystals are losing their power. An Atlantean princess solves the problem by becoming something like a minor deity. She is able to change because, well . . . and this is done by, well, the force of her desire to save her people. Or Fate. Or something. Certainly God didn’t decide to do it.
Both Brother Bear and Atlantis are based on the motif of transformation, which was common in Greek myth: A woman might become a spider, or a hospitable elderly couple might be turned into trees. Examples of such transformations are also common in the Norse myths and other pagan systems. The original Star Wars, the granddaddy of pagan films for children, had a variant of the transformation motif. In George Lucas’s universe, the mysterious Force surrounds us all and can, with training, be used by all. The Force is impersonal and has no will of its own, but we can use it to make ourselves demigods, who may be evil or benevolent and self-sacrificing. Unlike the Jedi of Star Wars, or the princess in Atlantis: The Lost Empire, a Christian thinks it not only futile but a grave sin to try to become a god.
Not all myth and fantasy are pagan. The hugely popular Lord of the Rings has a Christian cosmology: All who live in Middle Earth are capable of yielding to temptation and committing evil, but many struggle against sin. Middle Earth has a Christian coherence, as the War of the Rings is a struggle that encompasses the entire world. Men play a central role in this struggle, and death is potentially a transition to a better existence.
In our troubled culture, a pagan mind-set also infests our politics. The hard-core wing of the environmental movement values an impersonal Nature above all. Consider the religious tone of this Earth First! statement: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” And,
Even more important than the individual wild creature is the wild interconnected community—the wilderness, the stream of life unimpeded by industrial interference or human manipulation . . . This biocentric world view . . . has been developed into the philosophy of Deep Ecology.
A Druid would have recognized this philosophy.
Paganism is not only untrue but a dangerous thing. In the West, monotheism created a culture that generated great art, emphasized respect for human life and dignity, and ended slavery on three continents. Nazi pagans gave us the Nuremberg rallies. Paganism has a fondness for sacrificing children.
Those who hold traditional religion in contempt put many other things in its place: drugs, career, earthly utopias. We have such hunger for God that we must put something there. Happily, the nine-year-old girl who led me to find the paganism in the theater’s dark has her own experience of the transcendent that will not be damaged by any number of cute animals or affecting images. Her personal experience of a unitary intelligence and will behind the surface of things provides an inoculation against the belief that machines can help her find God, or the impulse to deify a political utopia. The applicant to our program, a gentle, well-meaning man—and a pagan—had put scientific research where a metaphorical candle belonged. Many around us do the same.