Clap for the modern gods
Once people prayed for rain or for sun. Now, we pray for our NHS
If your favourite hobbies include hacking unarmed monks to pieces and stealing the riches hidden away within their monasteries, it must be a bit of a wrench to eventually convert to Christianity. You’d certainly have enough to keep you going for a lifetime’s worth of confession.
This is what happened to our Viking friends about one thousand years ago, after all. Gatecrashing the peace and tranquillity of Lindisfarne in 793, Northumbrian scholar Alcuin reported that: “Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race … The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets.”
Yet within a few hundred years the ancestors of these very same Vikings were themselves busy building churches, having spent previous centuries burning and looting them with wild abandon.
The first Viking king to convert to Christianity was Harald Klak, who was baptised in 826. He did so to try and win the support of Louis the Pious, King of the Franks. However, it wasn’t until the next century under Harald ‘Bluetooth’ Gormsson (d.986) that Christianity started to gain traction. He was converted by a Frisian cleric called Poppo. Poppo supposedly convinced Harald of the reality of Christ when he picked up a lump of red-hot iron without suffering any burns. That Harald was trying to curry favour with the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I at the time may also have had something to do with his conversion.
As Europe loses its faith in God, we will no doubt look increasingly to minor modern gods of heathen belief
Iceland’s turn came a bit later. In the year 1000 a heated debate between the Christian and pagan factions of Iceland broke out. To avert a full-blown civil war the issue was brought to the country’s parliament — the Alþingi — to settle. The man given the task of resolving the issue was a certain Thorgeir Thorkelsson, Iceland’s “lawspeaker” at the time. A pagan — the double “Thor” in his name being a dead giveaway — he nevertheless decided the volcanic land would become Christian. Under the banner of “one law and one religion” baptism became mandatory. No doubt the remaining pagans grumbled at the prospect of being baptised in the ice-cold glacial streams of that North Atlantic outpost.
It’s often said that Christianity triumphed over the various pagan religions of Europe due to their openness and unspecificity. As far as paganism was concerned, the more gods there were, the better. Yet such beliefs were fundamentally incompatible with the word of the Bible. The all-encompassing conception of the Christian God — in the Trinity of God, the Son and the Holy Spirit — has very little room for the minor gods of water, war, wine and work. He is them all made one.
For most of the last millennium the Western world has taken this understanding of religion as a given. But as Europe loses its faith in God and Christianity retreats from the public consciousness, we will no doubt look increasingly to minor modern gods of heathen belief; deities and causes which can be summoned, invented and appealed to when necessary. In what will prove a heady cocktail, aspects of Christian theology will nevertheless linger, as Westerners are unable to throw off over a millennium of Biblical instruction.
Environmentalists demand we make offerings to Gaia in the form of reducing our “carbon footprint”. Only when we reach “net zero” will we be redeemed and nature restored to its proper balance. The pint-sized priestess of green herself, Greta Thunberg, is revered by converts as a modern-day prophet. Centuries ago she would have led a children’s crusade, today she has the ear of politicians throughout the world.
The Science has become another god in its own right. Not “science” — the process by which we advance knowledge and come to widely accepted truths — but prefixed with a crucial “the”. This definite article institutionalises the concept. Scientists become a priestly class, possessing an infallible understanding of the inner workings of the world which we mere mortals cannot pretend to comprehend. Where once we would say “God protect us from this pestilence!”, we now solemnly intone “follow The Science”.
Once people prayed for rain or for sun. Now, we pray for centrally planned healthcare systems — Our NHS. The bear-skin clad Viking warriors whose glorious death in battle would grant them a place in Valhalla have been replaced by PPE-armoured combatants on the front line, in whose honour the population took to the streets to conduct the pagan-esque ritual of clapping hands and banging pots. It was a rare moment of communal worship. With hospitals boarded-up for months on end, the message was clear: Protect the NHS. Dulce et decorum est pro NHS mori.
The Christian conception of original sin lingers as the bedrock of perhaps the most pernicious of today’s new belief systems. Whiteness represents its purest modern form, though the adjuncts of “male”, “straight” and “middle class” can be added to create a more potent brew. Modern race theory has long had its own churches to preach their teachings (university departments, the Runnymede Trust, the NAACP) and priestly class (academics, “Diversity & Inclusion Managers”). Most recently it has adopted a new saint whose impact has been almost global: George Floyd.
The established church can offer no resistance to this society-wide fracturing of the religious impulse. Instead of propagating the word of God, it acts as a conduit for any transient modern cause — flying the LGBT flag from cathedrals and implementing racial quotas — the latter abandoning the Christian teaching that all people are made equal in His image.
Without the church’s teaching and moderating influence, some of the Christian DNA in society has been set free from its moorings, degenerating into a malignant societal tumour. Core messages such as “love thy neighbour” have transmogrified into a requirement to accept everyone’s choices without judgement. To do otherwise would be “intolerant” — a modern form of heresy. Without a shared bedrock of reality, the very core concepts of our society, that of “man” and “woman” can come under sustained attack, resulting in the growing controversy around trans-rights you see today. If you disagree you’ll be met with wrath and scorn equal to the most fundamentalist of religious fanatics.
The pagan-esque ritual of clapping hands and banging pots for the NHS was was a rare moment of communal worship
Doubtless there are other modern cults. To my chagrin, few have returned back to the pagan gods of Norse mythology. More’s the pity: I can’t help but feel the public square would be enlivened were adherents of Thor, Odin and Loki to pop up once in a while on Question Time instead of an interminable slew of outraged environmentalists, trans-activists and race-baiters.
Many find an outlet for their misplaced religious fervour in the slew of modern day pseudo-religions which purport to give meaning but instead warp the minds of its adherents into dangerous spiritual cul-de-sacs, fuelling resentment and discontent in the process. Crucially, few of these modern day beliefs retain the vital core of Christian teaching, upon which so much of Western civilisation was constructed: the sanctity of the individual. Instead, they negate individual rights when confronted with gods in need of appeasing — Gaia — or in the face of supposed group injustice. It is a recipe for internecine strife.
The Vikings are often looked down on as being barbaric and pre-modern — the archetypal barbarian. But perhaps unknowingly we are, in part, reverting back to their pagan ways, as the unifying force of a single omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent God fades under the repeated assaults of what we would not long ago have rightly called false idols. In doing so, society becomes slave to a thousand competing modern imposters, with everybody desperately trying to make themselves a martyr for each recently discovered cause.
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