The Menace of the New Paganism

by Arnold J. Toynbee

Arnold J. Toynbee is the distinguished British author of A Study of History, and he contributed as an Anglican layman to a series of articles anticipating the 1937 ecumenical conference on Life and Work, held at Oxford.

This article was published in the Christian Century, March 10, 1937. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Post-Christian paganism has succeeded in capturing, for its own trivial and narrow ends, some of that wholehearted Christian devotion which ought to be given to God alone.The idolatrous worship of organized human power is the fatal error which is common to all the varieties of our postwar paganism. The error is so profound that the triumph of this paganism could spell nothing but disaster for mankind.

The adversary who is challenging Christianity today is a rival religion -- a single rival religion. True, this anti-Christian faith is coming into action under different names in different parts of the world; but the more these alternative versions of the postwar paganism insist upon their points of difference -- the more they abuse and attack one another -- the more clearly they betray their kinship with one another to the eyes of the Christian observer. And this element in each of them which is common to all of them is just the thing that makes them, all alike, incompatible with Christianity.

Let us begin by looking for a moment at the success which, in their own spheres, these new faiths achieve. Fascism and communism can dare to ask, and can be fairly sure of receiving, from their followers today a response which Christianity now hardly dares to ask, because it cannot longer be sure of its hold upon the people who call themselves Christians. It is by making these large demands on human nature, and not by offering people the license to do as they like and live at their ease, that the postwar paganism has been winning its masses of converts. This means that it is indeed a formidable spiritual force. And we shall not think it any the less formidable when we discover the secret of its success.

I think one can see two reasons for the fascination which the postwar paganism undoubtedly does exert upon the rising generation. It not only appeals, like Christianity, to the impulse toward self-denial and self-sacrifice -- an impulse which can, of course, be enlisted in a bad as well as in a good cause. The postwar paganism also gives its converts directions for their conduct in practical life; and these directions are of the kind which human nature craves for: they are simple, clear, concrete and confident. A believing Fascist or Communist can probably get more definite instructions than a believing Christian about how he is to behave here and now: whom to love, whom (in his case) to hate, what to fight for, what to worship. On a long view, this extreme concreteness may turn out to be one of the weak points of this paganism; but on a short view its plain answers to plain questions are a tower of strength. And on any view this exaggeration of what is surely a virtue in itself makes the postwar paganism an adversary which has to be taken very seriously by Christianity.

In its own estimation, this postwar paganism is indeed nothing less than Christianity’s supplanter and successor. "Christianity," say the Fascist and Communist missionaries, "is an old religion which has had its chance and has failed to make use of it." Christianity, they say, has been in the world for ages and has not succeeded in making any appreciable difference to human life. If the spirit and teaching and practice of Christianity were really the way of salvation, they would surely have saved the world by this time. So today, they tell us, Christianity stands condemned by the verdict of history. It is, therefore, high time for Christianity to retire from the stage and yield the floor to a new religion which claims to have a better understanding of human nature, and believes for that reason that it can produce results where Christianity has nothing more substantial to its credit than a scrap-heap of unfulfilled and unfulfillable ideals. "Fascism and communism," say their preachers, "stand for pagan performance as opposed to Christian promise; they stand for deeds in place of dreams."

This attack on Christianity is made by the postwar pagans in good faith. It is just this belief in their own program that is their strength. Yet this overweening pagan claim calls down upon itself a shattering Christian answer. The answer can be put in three points. In the first place, the really new thing in the world is not paganism but Christianity. In the second place, if there are any new features in the postwar paganism, they are features which this paganism has borrowed from Christianity. In the third place, the core of the postwar paganism, under its Christian varnish, is something as old as the hills -- an ancient error which Christianity has fought and conquered not once but many times already. Let me try to put each of these points to you very briefly.

First, Christianity is not old but young. In thinking of Christianity as old, our modern pagans are unconsciously looking at history in the short perspective of a prescientific age. If you bear in mind the fact that the human race has been in existence not for mere thousands but for hundreds of thousands of years, and then think of the life of mankind on earth up to date in terms of the life of a single human being, you will see that 37 A.D. is no farther off from 1937 A.D. than yesterday is from today in your life or in mine. And in this really very brief period of less than two thousand years Christianity has in fact produced greater spiritual effects in the world than have been produced in a comparable space of time by any other spiritual movement that we know of in history.

Christianity promises to inspire men and women to lead a new life and to teach them how to do it, and this promise has already been fulfilled in the lives of the saints. These lives are an earnest of a life that may be lived one day by all the members of the church on earth, for sainthood is not some half-legendary grace of the early church which died out within a few centuries of the church’s foundation. It is a spiritual power in Christianity which has broken out again and again wherever and whenever the church has been challenged by the world, as it is being challenged today. There was an outbreak of sainthood in sixteenth-century Italy in answer to the challenge of the Renaissance, and another in nineteenth-century France in answer to the challenge of the Revolution. And if Christianity rises to the present challenge from the postwar paganism, the appearance on earth of another batch of saints will no doubt be one of the practical concrete ways in which the church will be given the strength to deal with its present adversary.

The second point in our Christian reply to the pretensions of the paganism of today was, you will remember, that, so far as one can find anything new in the twentieth-century paganism, this new thing is something that has been borrowed by paganism from Christianity itself. I do see one new thing in this latter-day paganism which is, I am certain, of Christian origin, and that is its wholeheartedness. Christianity has put into the spiritual life of man on earth an intensity which was never given to it by any older religion -- not even by Zoroastrianism and Judaism, which were Christianity’s two forerunners. Christianity has done this by giving us a new insight into God’s purpose in the world, and into man’s part in that purpose -- an insight which shows us the immensity of the importance of our conduct here and now. Christianity places our conduct in this life on earth in its gigantic setting of infinity and eternity, and by opening our eyes to this vast spiritual vision it calls out our deepest spiritual energies.

Now I fancy that the present post-Christian form of paganism has succeeded to some extent in "stealing the thunder" of Christianity (to borrow a phrase from the vocabulary of primitive religion). This post-Christian paganism has succeeded in capturing, for its own trivial and narrow ends, some of that wholehearted Christian devotion which ought to be given to God alone. And if this has really happened it should be taken deeply to heart by Christians for two reasons. For one thing, this pagan practice of a Christian virtue shows up the lukewarmness and indecisiveness which have paralyzed so much of the Christianity of the modern age, for if the church had remained true to herself she would not have seen her children transferring their allegiance elsewhere and laying their Christian spirit of devotion at the feet of false gods. And then, again, there is nothing so dangerous and so destructive as a wholehearted devotion that has been diverted from the service of God to the service of some lower object. The spiritual driving-force drawn from Christianity has given the new paganism a daemonic power which the old paganism never wielded, and this power is -- let us frankly admit it -- tremendously formidable. If Christianity is to conquer a paganism that has been allowed to equip itself with the church’s own weapons, the church will have perhaps greater need of God’s grace than it has ever had before.

And now I come to the last of my three points. That is that, apart from the new Christian intensity with which our postwar paganism has managed to arm itself, this paganism which is challenging Christianity once more today is not a new thing in the world, as Christianity itself is, but, on the contrary, is something very old -- as old, perhaps, as human nature. Our postwar paganism is, in fact, in one form or another, simply the idolatry which used to hold the field in the ages before Christianity appeared in the world, and which Christianity has always been struggling to weed out of people’s hearts. In speaking of fascism and communism as idolatry, I am not just hurling a term of abuse at them. By "idolatry" I mean something which is, I think, quite definite and clear, and which is also, I think, written large on the face of both these two latter-day pagan movements. By "idolatry" I mean a religion which either does not know, or else refuses to recognize, that there is no god but God, and which therefore worships the creature instead of worshipping the creator.

As the works of God’s creation are infinite, idolatry has taken a great variety of forms. One form is the worship of organized human power. This organization of power may be local and sectional, or again it may attempt to embrace the whole of mankind; and either the local tribe or humanity at large may be, and has been, erected into an object of idolatrous worship. Each of these two ancient idols has now been set up on its pedestal again by the new paganism. The tribe is the idol of fascism; humanity is the idol of communism.

The high priests of tribalism preach to their devotees that the whole duty of man is comprised in the service of the local tribe into which a man happens to have been born. The tribesman’s tribe is to be the tribesman’s god. This tribal god is to have an exclusive claim upon the tribesman’s allegiance and devotion. And this idolatrous worship necessarily debars the tribe-worshiper both from worshipping the one true God and from being his own human brother’s keeper outside this one tribe’s narrow limits. This tribe-worshipping form of idolatry is the religion of Ishmael, whose "hand will be against every man, and every man’s hand against him." It was also the religion of Sparta, and of the other city states of ancient Greece with whom the Spartans were perpetually at war. And these ancient city states came to the bad end which in our day is threatening to overtake the national states into which Christendom has broken up in modern times. Sparta and the rest of them met the fate of the Kilkenny cats. They fought each other to extinction, and on their ruins was established that Roman Empire which became an object of idolatrous worship in its turn.

In the Roman Empire, a generation which had become disillusioned with tribe-worship found a new idol which, in contrast to Sparta and Athens, stood for the whole of mankind, and not just for one section of it.

The idolatrous worship of organized human power is the fatal error which is common to all the varieties of our postwar paganism. The error is so profound that the triumph of this paganism could spell nothing but disaster for mankind. But to say that human society is not a proper object for religious worship does not, of course, mean that the tribe or the state or the nation or the world empire are evil in themselves. No doubt they have their place in human life, since man has been created as a social creature. But the function of these manmade social organizations is certainly not to usurp the throne of God. Their function -- and it is an honorable though a humble one -- is to serve as stepping-stones on the way toward the only society in which man can find a true satisfaction for his social nature; that is, a society which, so far from usurping the place of God, has God himself for its principal member. The true home of man is the Civitas Dei, the "City of God" in which the common fatherhood of God creates a brotherhood between all the human citizens of the divine commonwealth -- a brotherhood which cannot be established by any bond of which God himself is not the maker.