Every so often the media stages a debate over whether America is still a Christian nation, as if asking the question were not already to answer it. America is not a Christian nation; it is an emerging pagan nation with a Christian past. Accordingly, we should expect it to become more and more pagan. Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that American soldiers will start riding chariots or begin wearing helmets with horse-hair crests, or that the next New York fashion trend will involve togas. Rather, I mean that the deeper and darker currents of ancient pagan culture will increasingly reappear in modern guise.
The darkest cult of the modern age is the cult of Choice. Choice is all too easily mistaken as a benign god of the air—his countenance as unsettled as an open question, the limits of his domain as vague as the boundaries of the will, his shape as variable as the very winds. But behind this shifting appearance a malicious, infernal god lies hid. In reality, he is not indecisive at all. The choice he demands is death.
In his ancient form he devoured many. Playing upon man’s lust and pride, his price was human sacrifice. The Carthaginians, for example, offered him their own people in exchange for maritime power and lucrative trade. For success in these endeavors they hurled their children into the flames of Moloch. Similar motivations and practices prevailed in ancient Rome, where abortion was a common practice. The physician Galen wrote about the plants known to induce abortions, which were used to limit family size or even to preserve one’s beauty. Again, the Spartans would leave unfit babies to die of exposure in order to maintain their society’s martial supremacy. In each of these cases and many more, “quality of life” or worldly advantage justified the killing of the youngest and most vulnerable. Wealth, ease, beauty, or military success justified murdering babies. The god of Choice has always been a god of death; that’s the price he exacts for satisfying his supplicants’ desires.
The modern cult of Choice is only superficially different from the darkest pagan cults of old. We do not leave babies to die of exposure or chuck them into the flames of Moloch. Instead, we dismember them in nondescript clinics. The devotee of Choice will sacrifice anything, including the life of another, in order to secure his independence, his “right” to self-determination. His pride, vanity, or convenience outweighs the life of one unable to resist his will. As modern culture moves further away from any belief in a transcendent God, from any objective understanding of the good, we should expect to see more and more similarities between our cultural mores and those of the ancient pagans. It should not surprise us, for example, that Oxford’s Journal of Medical Ethics recently published an article entitled “After-Birth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Live?” If the answer to this question is no longer obvious, then we are indeed pagans already.
Image: Still from Metropolis (1927)