The Paganisation of Western Culture

This is the text from the annual lecture in memory of Sir Isaiah Berlin, given in Oxford in May, 2009.

Many years ago, Sir Isaiah Berlin and I started a correspondence that had to do with his ancestry. In Jewish terms, he came from a very distinguished ancestry. He was a direct descendant of the founder of the Chabad movement. In the course of the years, I had the honour and the joy of meeting Sir Isaiah several times, both in England and in Jerusalem. Isaiah Berlin was one of the last intellectuals in England. An intellectual is not necessarily a university professor: he can also be a shoemaker. An intellectual is a person of boundless curiosity, who has the desire and the ability to discuss everything and the spark that can make something new out of anything. There are very few people of this kind nowadays. Neither England nor the world seems to grow enough of this breed anymore.

Western culture can be said to have begun with ancient Greece. Its real beginning, though, seems to be approximately the second century CE. It was then that Greek ideas and systems of thought blended with Jewish concepts to create the Greco-Christian culture that prevailed for almost two millennia. While there have been both major historical and cultural shifts and continuities over time, Western culture can be perceived as one culture that had a fair number of important unifying elements. Even though it is difficult to define a single clear point of change, contemporary Western culture can be seen as a different culture, which has to be defined and described.

One of contemporary Western culture’s most salient features is its enormous and unprecedented technological ability. Technology is no longer an additional feature of the culture, but an essential part of it. In fact, advanced technology is now one of the most important factors in the culture, in addition to defining it.

Technology serves many purposes: it may hasten certain processes and delay others, but mostly it makes life more comfortable and also makes so many things more accessible. Advanced technology was the result of progress in science and more efficient social structures. It began as a tool for Western civilisation, but became in itself a factor in shaping and changing the culture. From a tool of society, it became one of its masters. Technology has become a very powerful cultural agent. To cite one example: the contraceptive pill, while based on major scientific discoveries, is a minor technological event. From the perspective of pure science, there is no great novelty about it. But the change it created is enormous. It created a behavioural change. It has changed the lives of boys and girls in every part of the Western world — and it affects the future of Western society.

Communication is another example. In the new world in which we live, reaching from one part of the world to another is so much faster and easier than ever. As a result, languages are changing all over the world. Radio and television cause local dialects to die and even some national entities are becoming blurred. The internet, with its many tools and accessories, is a recent development in communication. Its power in the political, scientific and moral spheres cannot be overestimated. In this case, the content of the internet is secondary to the enormous power it has due to the very existence of the ability to create super-communication. Technology itself does not dictate any specific behaviour but it changes the parameters of our behaviour.

And Western culture is now expanding geographically. Until only a few decades ago, Eastern Europe was a different cultural unit. Today, Russia and Ukraine, although not as advanced technologically as other countries, are a part of the West — in terms of what people wear, what they read and write, the music they listen to and produce. Israel, too, is now identified with Western culture. Israeli culture, although connected to Jewish culture, is not identical with it. Israelis, too, behave, dress and think like Westerners. They even speak like them, albeit using a slightly different language. But then again, Western culture never had one language.

The expansion of Western culture has both historical meaning and cultural significance. The Eurovision Song Contest is not a tremendously high-level cultural event, but it is one of Western culture’s manifestations and every year more countries participate in it. It also becomes shallower.

But most importantly, the influence and power of Christianity — which had been extremely strong in Europe and the regions connected with it — are disappearing. To be more precise, they have already disappeared. Indeed, it has been noted that the Western world is now living in the void that Christianity has left behind. I think this is a very good definition of contemporary Western culture. Does this mean that there are no Christians any more or that there is no Pope in Rome? No. There is also an Archbishop in Canterbury, but what power or influence does he have over England? Christianity as an essence — as a power, as a meaningful factor — is disappearing. The number of churchgoers is dwindling, and the Church is selling property in order to survive.

Good or bad, this is a fact, a part of contemporary life. Christianity has left behind lots of memories, ways of expression and numerous superstitions, which tend to remain long after faith has disappeared. Someone once said that people still hate the Jews for having killed a God they do not believe in. We are now living in a world that is empty of Christianity or Judeo-Christianity. And this void is now being filled with something else and that something else is paganism.

Yes, contemporary Western culture is a pagan culture. It is ruled by the gods of olden time, only with new names and different images. The first is the god of power — formerly known as Baal (literally, “owner”) — who sometimes appears in a slightly different form as Mammon, the god of money. Another such god is Ashtoreth (Astarte or Ishtar), the goddess of sex and fertility. In our time, though, it is no longer the goddess of fertility but only of pure sex.

Yet another god, perhaps promoted from a mere muse to a full-fledged deity, is Calliope, who is now the ruler of the craving for fame. People may want money in order to obtain material goods. They may want sex for amusement, sometimes even for procreation. But Fame is now a thing in itself — it is an addiction. What does the relatively new term “celebrity” mean? It means that one is a well-known nobody. And the better one is well known, the less people care who and what one is. Indeed, many young girls and boys want to be film stars — not because they wish to be beautiful or powerful, but because they want to be known all over the world.


One may ask: where are all the temples of these gods? Well, the temples of Jupiter-Mammon are in almost every other building in the City of London and in Geneva — only they are called banks and their priests and high priests are called managers and executives. The temples (as well as the images) of Astarte are everywhere. And Calliope has little shrines in almost every household, in the form of television sets.

Does this mean that in the past, people did not crave power, did not want money and abstained from sex? I do not think so. All these things existed from the beginning of humanity, perhaps even earlier. But in the past, they were hidden desires. For some, they were temptations, while others branded them demons. Nowadays, however, these cravings are naked and are flaunted openly and unabashedly. So the Western world is now ruled by this trinity — which is quite different from the Christian one. This is neither a sermon nor an admonition, but a statement of fact.

There are, however, some changes that come as a result of the times. The old-new gods now have more modern garments and they drive better cars. Today’s Jupiter often wears a business suit, Astarte has undergone plastic surgery and Calliope very often appears on television.

This neo-paganism is also not completely official, yet: there are still various kinds of camouflage, such as universities or political institutions. But what makes them run? Surely not love. And one can see that they, too, are crumbling as real centres of power. Universities, although they are still teeming with people and activities, no longer have the same attraction, since knowledge is no longer a general passion, while politics is almost a bare drive for power, not a striving for any ideas. Along with them crumble all of the 19th-century ideologies. Ideologies nowadays are worth less than the paper they are printed on. Take nationalism or Marxism: at the beginning of the 20th century, both were very strong semi-religious ideologies. But today, how many people would be willing to die for the glory of their nation or for the proletariat? Oxford University once had a number of spies, some of them believers, or half-believers, in one of those ideology-religions. Today, there are no longer any spies at Oxford — not because people are purer or better, but because there is no reason for it, no sense in it. Communism is dead and today the world is ruled by these other powers.

Is this reality better or worse than what we had in the 20th century? I do not know nor am I trying to make any judgments. I am only pointing out that the culture in which we live is a pagan culture that is not very different from the culture that prevailed in the world some 2,500 years ago. Even technology does not really make things different. The difference is only external.

Does contemporary Western culture have no literature, no poetry, no dreams? It does have some. Does it not have a fair number of good people? It does. Many features of human nature, as well as many of its good traits, have remained. But there are major changes in the basic tenets of the culture. We seem to continue on the same path, because culture has an enormous amount of inertia and takes a long time to change. Consider how long it takes for a language to die, or for a new language to appear. So we are not at the very end of a period, but we are well into a neo-pagan era.

What does Jewish culture have to say about all this? When it comes to technology, Judaism is all for progress. Most other religions tend to view progress with suspicion, even hatred, as well as a real desire to destroy. Judaism, even in earliest times, saw innovation as important and chronicled it. In the opening chapters of Genesis, the inventors of musical instruments and weapons are mentioned. While we were aware that some inventions might be dangerous, progress was always considered to be positive. This attitude, which has helped us remain a young people, is based on Judaism’s profound faith in man. We believe that the duty of humanity is to be partners of God — which means, among other things, being creative. Creativity, then, is a basic component of our belief, of our desire to improve the world.

In regard to the pagan gods, however, Judaism is very clear: we are totally against them. In that sense, we are standing in the very same place as our father Abraham stood. In Abraham’s time, the pagan world had a very high culture. Not only did it have its own poets and philosophers — some of them very great — it even had international banking, enabling the transfer of funds in clay envelopes containing clay letters for distances of 2,000 kilometres and more. Abraham was considered — rightly or wrongly — as the lonely madman of Ur (then, the lonely madman of Haran, and finally, the lonely madman of Canaan) because he was against the prevailing religious culture. Judaism has a clear stand on this issue, even if it is not so very popular.

Indeed, we see that after all is said and done, we are still lonely, as lonely as Abraham. The verse “Abraham was one” (Ezekiel 33:24) says just that: he was one, against a whole world. Indeed, the Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 42:8) explains the epitaph Avraham ha-Ivri as “Abraham who came from the other side”. “The whole world stands on one bank [of the river], and he is on the other bank.”

Judaism had many disagreements with the former Christian culture of Europe, but we agreed with some of its basic notions: faith in God; the belief that our human needs are not supreme; and the understanding that man is not only a master, he is also a servant. These were points of consensus between Jewish culture and Christianity, Islam, even Hinduism and Buddhism. Thus, even though we were spat upon and even killed for our disagreements, we agreed deeply — and were much more in step — with the Western world of two and three centuries ago. We are completely out of step with contemporary Western culture, because wherever we are — from Kamchatka to New Zealand — we are still walking in Abraham’s path. And we are very much alone. Will the world change? It may, and if it does, we will gladly walk together with it. If not, we will remain alone.

That is not a terribly optimistic view. However, Leibniz proposed the basic idea that our world is the best of all possible worlds. His contemporary, Voltaire, maintained that ours is the worst of all possible worlds. I would say that the Jewish view is that our world is the worst of all possible worlds, in which there is still hope.

Questions and Answers

Q: You described what happened in Europe with regard to religious faith; but what about the secularisation of Jewish society?

RAS: Israel, as I said, is now a part of the Western world. But while Europe is now living in the void that Christianity has left, Israel is living in the void that Judaism has left. On a rather practical and emotional level, there may be a difference between two kinds of void. But basically, it is the same thing. Some of the Arab or Muslim countries are also similarly Westernised. They were never Christians, but they were Muslims, and some of them have practically become non-Muslim entities, a part of the Western world. Even Japan and China can nowadays be said to be part of the Western world. I did not mention militant Islam; this may be a new phenomenon, a new historic event. But what I said about Western culture is as true about Israel as it is about England, France or Denmark.

Q: So how do people who have no religious faith and do not lead a religious life, connect with Jewish culture and tradition?

RAS: Jewish culture is not just about waving a blue-and-white flag, and it is not even about knowing some Hebrew. Even this double achievement does not make it very easy to be connected with Jewish culture. To be connected with Jewish culture is to accept that it is different. As Elijah the Prophet said on Mount Carmel (I Kings 18:21): we cannot “halt between two opinions”. We must make a decision once and for all — which God do we go for? You want the Baal? Fine, enjoy. But if you do want that, you cannot play with this.

In fact, one sees many people with a similar dilemma. For some, the answer may be: in principle I know where I want to be, but practically, I find it very difficult. Thus, some people may be officially observant, but for them, being observant is an unimportant, external shell that they shed the instant the opportunity comes. For some people, that opportunity never comes; others may move to another place — and find out that their observance was no more than disposable habits. For others, it goes the other way around, but they too may find that changing one’s culture is not like pushing a button: any change in life is a very complex process which may take a very long time.

It is a matter of choice, then, which for some people is a choice of a culture, and for others also a choice of nation. One very moving example is the story of the journalist Daniel Pearl, who was murdered in Pakistan. This man was surely not counted among the rabbis, nor was he a shining example of Jewish life. Yet before his murder he made a most startling last statement. He said: “My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish.” He certainly made a clear decision where he belonged.

Q: How do you see the future, in terms of where both Western culture and Jewish culture are heading? Is a renewed blending of Jewish ideas possible — or is the future more bleak?

RAS: I have hope, or I would not be standing here. There are all kinds of possible blends: certain blends yield mules or mongrels that are not fit to live, while others display the phenomenon known as “the hybrid power” — hybrids that are far better than their ancestors, be they human beings, animals or plants. Will there be another meeting of those two cultures? Perhaps. However, I always prefer to be an historian than a prophet; it’s safer.


Reprinted with permission from Standpoint Magazine.