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Is paganism dead? Or are we just living in denial?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 18, 2023

It is a chore to re-read Leviticus every year or so, since it primarily outlines the demands of Jewish ritual and ritual purity, as prescribed by God through Moses. But in my series on the Old Testament several years ago, I noticed that the rules God established for the Jewish community at this early date also teach us a great deal about personal and social morality today. For reference:

At the very least, as my old friend Poirot says, “It gives one furiously to think.” There are an increasing number of common sexual sins and abuses today which were associated with pagan cults that were absolutely forbidden to the Jews. They were forbidden not only because they involve a betrayal of the Lord, but because they are a fundamental violation of the relationships which are naturally proper to the human person and to a healthy society. Were we not blinded by both sensual lust and the demand for untrammeled “personal expression”, we would see these same actions as serious sins today. Again, they are known to us not only by God’s commands but naturally. But this is worth revisiting because, with each passing year, the downward moral spiral becomes increasingly broad and rapid.

In addition, one thing that I did not emphasize back in 2017 when I wrote the early parts of my series on the books of the Old and New Testaments (see the entire series) was the relationship of child sacrifice to paganism. Yet in every way, the deliberate sacrifice of children to the gods of atheism seems ever more increasingly to dominate our society. The problem is expressed both specifically and generally in Leviticus. Thus:

You shall not give any of your children to offer them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God…. Any one of the people of Israel or of the strangers who sojourn in Israel who gives any of his children to Molech shall surely be put to death…. I myself will set my face against that man…. And if the people of the land do at all close their eyes to that man…then I will set my face against that man and against his clan…. [Lev 18:21; 20:1-5]

The Hebrew text of 18:21 reads more like this: “You shall not give any of your children to make them pass through the fire to Molech.” We are talking about child sacrifice, in all its forms, from ritual bodily sacrifice to giving them over to a life of sin.

False gods

It is telling that the more people fall away from the Judaeo-Christian religions today, the more they do so because they have been drawn into an intensely secular vision which—precisely like ancient paganism—requires that they find fulfillment by preferring personal desire to the guidance of the natural law. More specifically, they see no reason to resist the temptation to find personal satisfaction whenever and however they please, and to obliterate even nature itself by offering themselves and their children to the demands of the gods they worship. Such a life is always characterized not only by infidelity to the one God but also by a fundamental human infidelity, especially when it comes to children, including even the specifically murderous crimes of divorce, child abuse and neglect, gender change, abortion and infanticide.

This is nothing but the high price of wayward desire and the lust for worldly satisfaction, which invariably demands the abandonment of all non-worldly restraints. Whatever cultural restraints are imposed by the “world”, of course, are usually eagerly accepted as the key to enlightenment: “All these I will give you,” say the world and the flesh with the Devil, “if you will fall down and worship me.” To the contemporary secular mind, these things are so essential to human satisfaction that the ideology of absolute self-determination is imposed on everyone from the earliest age in public schools that have been progressively wrested from any control by those parents who see things differently. Indeed, one of the first challenges any sound parent faces in raising children today is, at all costs, to get them out of the public schools, from K through the BA.

Leviticus is an old, old book. It consists primarily of God’s instructions to Moses, carried forward in Jewish teaching beginning about 3,300 years ago, and perhaps most likely edited into its present form around 2,500 years ago. Its condemnations of sexual sin focus on all the practices which have been justified over the past generation or so in our culture, including sexual relations between those of close kinship (the stability of marriage being counted as nothing), nearly absolute promiscuity involving all ages, homosexuality and bestiality, and—as we have just seen—the sacrifice of children to Molech. Again, in less religious terms, this now goes by the names of sexual and gender abuse, abortion and infanticide—not to mention abandonments both partial and total.

This is not at all surprising. The family has imploded as infidelity, sexual perversion, abortion and infanticide have become common in nearly all pagan cultures—not only in what we might regard as the tribal paganisms of the ancient Jewish era but in the Graeco-Roman world as well. Christianity has restricted these abuses of our own nature wherever it has been received, and it is not at all surprising that such practices are proliferating once again—complete with government patronage—wherever Christianity is being driven underground, as it is throughout the West today, and in many other places as well.

But God Himself warned over three thousand years ago that he would set his face against the person who turns his children over to be offered to Molech. Of course, we know that this is primarily a matter of the guilty persons setting their faces against God. In Christ, they can be restored through the same repentant recognition exemplified by St. Peter: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (Jn 6:68-9). But sometimes we stray very far from the source of our happiness and security: “Jesus answered them, ‘Did I not choose you…and one of you is a devil?’” (Jn 6:70)

What we want

Truly, many are still fleeing toward the Devil today precisely in order to preserve a false and wayward autonomy which does not really belong to the human person. Sadly, many more have never had a truly wholesome human opportunity to “believe and come to know” Jesus Christ. Even many Catholics, at every level, obscure this knowledge and belief, from fear of falling foul of the world which, in precisely this ancient sense, has always been under the control of the Father of Lies:

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” [Mt. 4:8-9]

Of course, most of us aspire to something less than the whole world. We simply want to fulfill our own desires, which may even be quite modest, without bothering about the will of God, whom we conveniently regard as an abusive fiction. Our personal conceits become the easiest way to free ourselves from all of God’s unseen “shackles”. I have seen it at play everywhere from the time I went off to college (and have no doubt that perceptive souls can see it clearly far earlier today). Again and again I observed that, at root, my classmates, and later my work acquaintances, questioned the existence of God primarily because they were falling into a culture of behavior which contradicted what Christian teaching demanded of them. What begins in a deliberate laxity often ends in denial. In time we become deceptively comfortable living in denial.

Looking back, while the formal atheism of the West was not so evident in my early adulthood (beginning in the late 1960s), it was already very advanced in the professoriate. The practical atheism of the West was manifested first both in higher education and in the rapid drop off of weekly church attendance as soon as it became culturally acceptable not to appear at church on Sundays. One friend in my early college teaching days realized he could skip Mass as soon as our small North Carolina parish added a second Mass. After all, anyone who wondered would just assume he had gone to the other Mass. He did not realize he was giving his three children to Moloch; few do.

In any case, the progression is nearly always the same for those who have been raised with some small vestige of Christianity. Christian worship, like Christian adherence, is something that gets in the way of what we want to do at the moment. Personal prayer may have never developed, and a purely formal group prayer (when it is no longer socially expected) is the first thing to go. Then parents accommodate themselves to the new morals of their children, which have been so carefully instilled by their teachers and by the media. For most Christians, being essentially nominal Christians, one’s morality is almost entirely determined, soon or late, by whatever the dominant culture accepts or rejects—as is even one’s willingness to claim the Christian name.

When subject to honest examination, the whole thing is laughable: The process of ignoring the “God question”, or even of formally rejecting the idea of a personal God who cares, is usually based on the inconvenience of restricting our own tendencies, our own ideas about how we want to spend our time—whether away from prayer or immersed in the attractions of temptation. Unless we are carefully formed—or form ourselves in sacrificial obedience to Jesus Christ—to desire what is good, we end by proclaiming good whatever we desire. When our weak and fallen nature is left to itself, especially since our pride is certainly still at work as it was with Adam and Eve, the destructive devolution is pretty much as simple as that.

It is all about what we want. And what we want is very often what Molech tells us to want. There’s the rub, and there’s the consequence. It is as old as human history, and it repeats itself again and again, or tries very hard to, in each of us. We claim to be unaware of any such processes at work. But when we hide from self-awareness, we hide from God.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: CorneliusG - May. 19, 2023 5:38 AM ET USA

    When I was about 13 I resolved to read the whole Bible. Then I got to Leviticus. I stopped reading in disgust because in my innocence I thought the sins it prohibited were so outlandish, so bizarre (e.g., bestiality), that no one could possibly commit them. At 65 I know better - and the ancient Biblical author knew human nature far better than an innocent 13 yr old.