Why We Need a New Religion

By John Poppy, Jan. 13, 1970

[Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the Jan. 13, 1970 issue of Look Magazine. As a subscriber, I was blown away, and I rushed right out to buy extra copies. But when I looked for this article in the newsstand copies, I was astonished to find it wasn’t there! In fact, in my subscriber’s copy, the page wasn’t even numbered, and the rest of the signature was nothing but ads. Moreover, that turned out to be the final issue of the magazine! I couldn’t find it online either, so evidently this article doesn’t officially exist. But I kept my copy, and drew upon it for inspiration in developing the Church of All Worlds and the Pagan movement. I reprinted it in Green Egg Vol. XXII, No. 88 (Feb. 1, 1990). This is now 2020, and I find it particularly relevant at this time to see how we’re doing with the New Religion we have been developing for the past 53 years since I first claimed the religious identity of “Pagan” on Sept. 7, 1967. –OZ] 

There I was, ten years old, spending two weeks at YMCA camp on Chesapeake Bay, doing my best to explain to a counselor who had asked, “Why did you go into town for Mass of you aren’t Catholic?”

“Not yet, we aren’t,” I corrected. Religion, I’d deduced, was just like Boy Scout badges. Your family worked up from Baptist or Methodist or something—I wasn’t sure—through Episcopalian (which we were), then High Episcopalian (fancier) and finally to the fanciest religion I’d seen, the equivalent of Eagle Scout. “Just a few more tests,” I lied, lusting for status, “then we’ll be Catholics.”

It all got straightened out, but at that point I was acting out the Establishment view of religion in the United States. Millions of peo0le walk into churches every week, sit a spell, and walk out unchanged. They’d feel better if they spent the time planting geraniums. They pray in public to get credit for piety or to strike some bargain with God. One thing I never bothered to wonder in my childish fantasy was, who gives the tests?

Not religion, not any more. Just one of many indicators is the Gallup Poll: In 1957, 14% of Americans thought religion was losing influence on the nation’s life. By 1969, the figure had blimped up to 70 percent.

We have used up the land’s ability to lend us meaning. Setting up th new country took Americans well into the 19th century; screwing wealth out of it brought us this far into the 20th. We looked out to the West, not into ourselves—but when the human tide reached the borders of the land and turned up like a great comber curling back on itself, men and women started to wonder, “What am I doing here?”

We need a new religion. The United States has arrived at a moment in which we must have—and can afford—a motive force less cruel and divisive than the dynamic, imperious Judeo-Christianism that has pervaded our civil religion for more than 200 years. All of our Protestant-ethic primness, technology, economic planning and social tinkering have helped us blitz a continent, but they have not been enough to make us whole. Dualism has gone wild, splitting God from Nature, sacred from secular, pleasure from duty, man from woman. It is sad, here in 1970: Ministers wonder if those Gallup figures are somehow their fault. Young people look outside any church for ways to combine their sense of wonder with a sense of purpose. Older people, anxious, feel abandoned by churches that seem less interested in comfort than in social activism. Oppressed people look for escape.

This is no attack on old approaches. I am only saying that we must go beyond them. In the future, men and women will find life bearable only when they deliberately tune every action to a search for deep purpose in themselves and each other.

We need a religion not of abstraction but of events—celebrations in which people can touch the mysteries of the universe by touching each other., We need a religion that will carry the words of “Do ye even so to them…” into action. Its rites would celebrate brotherhood in an intense sharing experience, akin to modern encounter groups of the koinonia—fellowship of the committed—of New Testament days. So that people could look forward to them, these might be the only scheduled events of an otherwise loosely structured religion. Such deep sharing of “ultimate concern”—a Paul Tillich definition of religion—might not appeal at first to traditional inner-directed churchgoers who resist touching each other, so new forms will have to develop outside the established ones. People can choose what they want. If the experience of parishes now experimenting with modernized Masses is any clue, the new forms will win converts fast. 

By deliberately celebrating the links between all beings, we can reunite the private and the public life, the inner and the outer man—and pull the holy blanket off authoritarians and power-seekers. No more talk about a Lord, an Almighty, a Heavenly Father who sits in judgment (loving or not) somewhere above and aloof. Such talk has been used mainly to frighten people since the Middle Ages, when lords were something real for serfs to fear; it conditions is to Pavlovian obedience to smaller bosses down here on the ground.

We need a religion that can forget merit badges and hierarchies, knowing it lives on the energy arcing between believers. Administrator-priests of the past have made churches but not religions. With confidence that every move they made is sacred, ordinary people could minister to each other in their own ways, giving and seeking comfort. Clergy would be worker priests, not full-time professionals. Except for a few beautiful cathedrals, churches would go the way of idols. Freed from the drudgery of caring for buildings and budgets, priests could afford more personal involvement with people. Celebrating liturgies in homes, in small groups, in places rented for the purpose.

We need a religion that is life-oriented enough to deal with death. Instead of viewing natural death as a catastrophe and offing hints of afterlife as apology, we might concentrate on living fully—postponing neither pleasures nor obligations—so that death in old age can be accepted as part of the ecological cycle. Untimely death, from war or carelessness, could be an occasion for mourning designed to change its causes.

We need a religion that will make cruelty to other humans, to animals, plants and the Earth itself not just “bad” but as crazy and painful as hacking off your own foot. A new religion would honor those who live in harmony with the Earth instead of trying to subjugate it.

We need a religion that will bring the body and the senses up out of neglect, so that they and the intellect can grow together.

We need a religion that will expand our sense of reality. We must involve ourselves in powerful rituals, and must seek the insights of the shamans among us. We must welcome the part of our inner selves that wants to wander joyfully out of control once in a while.

Ritual has always been one way for people to share feelings and express the almost inexpressible. Of course, it has to grow naturally. The Russian gov’t is learning, to its confusion, that artificial; rites are soon exposed as state “measures” that turn off people who don’t like to be manipulated.

The shaman—a prophet, wizard, oracle who usually operates in a trance—perceives messages in the forces of Nature, listening to voices most of us do not hear. We must heed the claim of poets like William Blake and scientists like Teilhard de Chardin that the true universe does not reveal itself to the rationalistic, mechanical, skeptical mind alone. A vital religion must open itself to deeper (or different) forms of consciousness, even through rock musicians, drug-takers, faith healers, housewives or whatever. Historian Theodore Roszak writes: “Besides our eyes of flesh, there are eyes of fire that burn through the ordinariness of the world and perceive the wonders and terrors beyond.” The tightly controlled “objective” mind sees beauty in order, formula, predictability. “In contrast, the beauty of the magical vision is not one of order, but of power… We are awed, not informed.” An older authority, St. Augustine, said, “If thou couldst comprehend him, he were not God.”

All this does not mean a throwback to pure superstition. We couldn’t go back even if we wanted to; reason and science are probably embedded in American genes by now. We must, however, welcome a thrust toward wholeness, toward the integration of some nearly forgotten talents with our newer ones, toward an end to our accursed dualisms. A you can see in the rest of this issue, a fresh religious attitude does not have to be invented. Its elements are already loose, struggling to be born.

If you consider yourself religious, try staying open to all the forms of search and worship around you. Something new might confirm what, deep down, your already knew.