A god in their own image

Culture | Return of the really old-time religions

Issue: "Supreme Court dividing line," May 6, 2000

Sekhmet, with the body of a woman and the head of a lion, is the Egyptian goddess of fertility. When Texas oil heiress Genevieve Vaughan visited Egypt with her husband, she came across a statue of Sekhmet and made a vow: If the ancient fertility goddess would help her have a baby, she would build a temple in her honor.

"Lo and behold, I got pregnant that very month," said Ms. Vaughan. That was 35 years ago. "It took me a long time to keep my promise, but I felt I really had to do it."

In 1993, the temple was finally built in Nevada on 22 acres, just off Route 95, the main highway between Las Vegas and Reno. Built by an all-female construction crew, the temple looks like a gazebo, with four open doorways. Inside, along with images of other goddesses, is the idol of Sekhmet, made of fiberglass. There is also a full-time priestess-Wicca-devotee and former sex therapist Patricia Pearlman-who leads weekly rituals for 20 to 30 followers, with many more who drive in for the major holidays such as Halloween.

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Today, the Sekhmet temple is embroiled in a controversy and looming court case over a gravel mine that is opening up about a mile away. As reported by Jim Carlton in the April 17 Wall Street Journal, the temple is trying to get the mine's permit canceled. The temple "is one of the few sites, worldwide, that are dedicated to the pagan way," said Sekhmet devotee Nancy Carlzen. "They do not have to put their mine at our back door."

Pending a major church growth program, the Temple of Sekhmet is small potatoes on the current American religious scene. Still, books coming out of a pagan, New Age, or Buddhist worldview take up far more shelf space in the "spirituality" section of most bookstores than Christian titles do. At universities, campus ministry organizations increasingly include among their members Wiccans (self-described "pagans," also known as witches).

As Christianity becomes less of a presence in the culture, the ancient pagan religions are rushing into the void. Progressives had always assumed that once Christianity faded, people would do without religion entirely. But this was naive. Without an advanced religion like Christianity, people are reverting to what came before, to nature worship, neo-animism, and primitive superstitions.

Though sacrificed chickens and other animals have become a public health nuisance in cities with large Santeria populations (a folk religion for some Hispanics, with something similar for some Haitians), the full pageantry of paganism is hardly evident. But the worldview of paganism-the divinity of nature, the deity of animals, devotion to forces of nature such as sex-as well as the inner mysticism and cosmic unity posited by the more sophisticated Eastern religions, are very much in vogue. And the culture's moral shifts may be a cultural reversion to paganism, which sometimes used prostitution and homosexuality as means of religious awakening and which often tolerated euthanasia and infanticide.

But the main religious shift in American culture is not so much to overt paganism as to syncretism, the attempt to combine a biblical faith with a pagan one. In his new book, Surveying the Religious Landscape, pollster George Gallup documents how Americans "pick and choose" their religious beliefs, mixing elements from different religions into their own personal belief system. "Substantial portions of traditional Christians," he reports, "subscribe to non-Christian beliefs and practices, such as reincarnation."

In the 1960s the ecumenical movement tried to reconcile the various Christian traditions. Today, it tries to reconcile the various world religions. Liberal mainline Protestants increasingly employ Native American rituals and goddess-idolatry in their worship services and shrink from "exclusive" teachings such as the First Commandment and that faith in Christ is the only way to salvation.

Even many ostensible evangelicals are showing signs of pagan flirtation. The "openness of God" theologians are jettisoning the attributes of the transcendent God who has always been worshipped by Christians in favor of a lesser god who is not all-knowing, outside of time, or all-powerful. Just as the warlike Greeks projected their cultural values into deities constructed in their image, this new god turns out to be very similar to the contemporary intellectuals who are making him up--omni-tolerant, liberal-minded, soft-hearted about human suffering, though wholly ineffectual in doing anything about it. This god is a far cry from the transcendent, incomprehensible Holy One of Israel who became incarnate in Jesus Christ.

Christianity can handle the competition from paganism. It has centuries of experience at this sort of thing. But paganism in the church is a more dangerous infection. The main danger is not from the idols that are invoked but from the uncomfortably holy Deity who declares that He is a jealous God.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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