Our Poor Excuse for Hedonism and Paganism

You often hear Catholics lament that present-day American society is theologically “pagan” or “neopagan” – and morally “hedonistic.”

Maybe so.  But that’s not how I see it.  Paganism is a form of religion – the wrong kind of religion, but still a form of religion.  A worship of too many gods.

Our problem in America, it seems to me, is not that we have the wrong kind of religion so much as it is that we are in danger of having no religion at all.  We have many substitute religions, to be sure, like environmentalism and “wokeism.” But we suffer from too much naturalism, not excess supernaturalism.

Besides, if we were pagans, we might evolve into Christians. That’s what happened in the ancient Greco-Roman culture.  Their paganism had within it the seeds of Christianity.  And, eventually, those seeds sprouted.  If such a development happened once, there is reason to believe it might happen again.

By contrast, atheism is barren ground.  It does not quietly nurture Christianity or any other high religion.  And that is our problem today – a tendency toward atheism, a tendency that increases in velocity almost every day.  In any case, so it seems to me.

Likewise with the notion that America is a hedonistic country.  We are no such thing.  For if we were, and if we had been serious about our pleasure-seeking – that is, more intelligent about it – we’d be less miserable than we are.  We’d be more pleased with life, more satisfied.

In the ancient world, the hedonistic or pleasure-seeking school of philosophy began with the pursuit of crude pleasures, sensual pleasures – wine, women (or boys), and song, so to speak.  But these philosophers soon discovered, thanks to a certain amount of bitter experience, that the dedicated pursuit of these pleasures led in the long run, not to joy, but to its opposite.

One of the ancient philosophers concluded that the average human life being more full of pain than pleasure, most people would be better off dead.

These serious pleasure-seekers eventually realized that a life of virtue was, at least in the long run, the most pleasant kind of life.

Would that our contemporary pleasure-seekers were so dedicated to the achievement of pleasure that they opted for lives of virtue.

The Epicurean life may not be as admirable as the life of holiness or the life of heroism, but it’s at least a reflective life.  A predominantly Epicurean society – a society marked by the quiet and refined pleasures of wisdom, justice, fortitude, and temperance, not to mention the arts and sciences – would be a reasonably good society.

At first glance, I concede, ours seems to be a pleasure-seeking country.  Think of how many among us devote themselves to the pleasures of the bed, the table, and recreational drugs.


Superficial or short-term observers will judge that these practices, though perhaps morally indecent, increase the amount of pleasure in the world by no small amount.  But Americans are not short-term observers of these bad habits.  The habits have been around in a major way since at least the 1960s.  It may be said that the nation has, for almost two-thirds of a century now, been conducting a great experiment with the pursuit of these pleasures.

Americans had been puritans, more or less, ever since the Pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock.  But circa 1960, in the midst of a post-Depression and postwar prosperity, we decided to try something new.  “Let’s have some fun,” we said.  It began with sex.  And then drugs.  And then more and various kinds of sex.  And then more and various kinds of drugs.

Well, by now the results of this great hedonistic experiment are in, and anybody with eyes to see and ears to hear knows what these results are.

As for the pleasures of recreational drugs, consider the immense amount of overdose deaths among young people that have taken place in recent years.  And remember that these deaths are only the tip of the iceberg; for every death, there are hundreds or thousands of ruined lives.

Remember too that the immense American appetite for drugs has led to the ruin of Mexico: a nation with a long tradition of petty corruption has become, in its attempt to keep Americans supplied, a nation of astounding criminality and mayhem caused by drug cartels.

As for the sexual revolution, it has been nothing less than a great national disaster, producing an immense amount of American misery.  To begin with, we’ve had AIDS and many other sexually transmitted diseases, the latest of these being monkeypox.

And we’ve had countless children being born out of wedlock and forced to grow up without a father in the home – this absence of fathers had foreseeable results: daughters who get pregnant while they are still unmarried teenagers; and sons who become members of criminal gangs, lovers of violence, victims of violence, and long-term residents of prisons.

And we’ve had millions and millions and millions of abortions, thereby causing not only death to the unborn victims (death by homicide) but a great coarsening of the national conscience.  Unborn babies today; who knows what tomorrow?  Probably euthanasia.

And not just moral corruption, but intellectual corruption too.  To justify the sexual revolution – with its nearly universal fornication, its promiscuity, its single-parenthood, its easy divorce, its abortions, its homosexuality, its same-sex marriage, its transgenderism – we have invented a great multitude of lies and distortions that you can believe only if you do violence to your intellect.

If you can believe that a boy who feels he’s a girl actually becomes a girl (or vice versa), you can believe anything.  You can believe, for instance, that monkeypox is not a gay disease (as we are assured almost every day by the mainstream media).  And you can believe that the U.S. Constitution contains almost any “fundamental human right” that strikes your fancy.

We keep telling ourselves that those new rights will make us happier and better. Yes, we keep telling ourselves that.


*Image: The Blind in the Ditch (Les aveugles dans le fossé) by James Tissot, c. 1890 [Brooklyn Museum]

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David Carlin is a retired professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America, Three Sexual Revolutions: Catholic, Protestant, Atheist, and most recently Atheistic Humanism, the Democratic Party, and the Catholic Church.