In a (very fine) article in this week's Irish Catholic, Father Pat Collins writes: "I have found that a growing number of people don't even believe in Heaven or Hell. As faith has weakened in these and other ways, many Catholics have adopted New Age and occult beliefs and practices".
I don't doubt Father Collins's pastoral experience, and I note he mentions "many Catholics" specifically, rather than "many people" in general. But the passing reference reminded me how frequently, in articles by Catholics, "New Age spiritualities" and "neopaganism" are mentioned as rivals to Christian faith. They are often reeled out in a list of contemporary rivals to the Faith, one which also tends to mention postmodernism and pluralism.
I often wonder if we are fooling ourselves about these things. Of course, we all know that there are neopagans and Wiccans out there, just as there are postmodernists and people who believe that all religions are different stained glass windows through which the same divine sunlight shines.
But I think these elements are, to be blunt, insignificant-- both in quality and quantity. How many pagans do you know? How many people do you know who would even use the term "postmodern", except ironically? How many dabblers in different world religions? Very few, I imagine.
Now, how many people do you know who-- either vocally or implicitly-- treat all religious belief, all spiritual assumptions, as so much baloney?
I may be wrong, of course, and perhaps I'm simply reading my own preoccupations into the world around me. But I really do doubt the importance of these supposed opponents. I am a Chesterton fanatic, and of course I think there is truth in the aphorism so often attributed to Chesterton (though it doesn't appear to actually occur in his works), "When people stop believing in god, they don't believe in nothing, they believe in anything". Rightly understood, I think that is bang on the money. But typically-- in our age at least-- the false idols they flee to are not spiritual or religious in nature, at least not ostensibly. They nearly always claim to be the purest rationalism; to be stoutly scientific, as did psychoanalysis and Marxism and libertarianism. In other words, the believers would themselves be unlikely to use the term "believe". In their own minds, they have jettisoned faith for evidence and cool, calm evaluation.
I think of the words of C.S. Lewis:
When grave persons express their fear that England is relapsing into Paganism, I am tempted to reply, 'Would that she were.' For I do not think it at all likely that we shall ever see Parliament opened by the slaughtering of a garlanded white bull in the House of Lords or Cabinet Ministers leaving sandwiches in Hyde Park as an offering for the Dryads. If such a state of affairs came about, then the Christian apologist would have something to work on. For a Pagan, as history shows, is a man eminently convertible to Christianity. He is essentially the pre-Christian, or sub-Christian, religious man.
I believe Christians like the idea of New Age Spirituality, because it's an easier target, and it seems more congenial. We like the idea of postmodernism, because it's so obviously nonsensical, so quickly "desconstructed"-- even something of a straw man. These antagonists, I think, are a little like the nobodies that would be so often thrown into the ring with Hulk Hogan and other WWF stars.
When it comes to the struggle for souls, I fear the real rivals to the Faith are much more formidable and much more hostile. At the moment, bestriding the Western world like a collosus, is philosophical materialism, which tends to be attended by libertarianism and scientism. Its assumptions are utterly different to those of the Catholic religion; there is little for the Catholic to grab hold of, so to speak. If the materialist believes in human equality, we can ask him where he gets his belief from. But many materialist and scientistically-minded people do not believe in human equality, or believe in it simply as a legal fiction. If they believe the cosmos is intelligible, we can ask them why that should be so, but this seems like an obscure point of metaphysical wrangling to most people. If they believe in morality, this is also an Achilles heel. But many philosophical materialists don't believe in morality, at least not in any meaningful way. They might think it's nice to be nice, they might even be willing to die for the things they care about, but they would deny that moral principles are anything but a human construct.
To be sure, most philosophical materialists wouldn't use that term for themselves. They are simply the increasing number of people who don't believe (they claim) in anything; who believe in "science", or "rationality", or "the modern world".
Of course, looming on the horizon like a stormcloud are the ever-strengthening forces of Islam, which I fear will use the weapons of demographics and fanaticism rather than ideas. (I am rather surprised that Islam has not begun to win Western converts in any great numbers; surely it is only a matter of time, given Europe's current state of spiritual limbo?) Beyond that, I sometimes fancy that the Mormons will be the great twenty-first century rival of the Catholic Church. But I admit that is speculation.
If only we really did have pagans and postmodernists to worry about!