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The disenchantment of the world

Up until the Reformation, Counter-Reformation, Witch Trials, and Scientific Revolution, most Europeans still lived in a highly enchanted world. But that was because their Christianity was a syncretic religion that still included many prominent pagan elements. Their religion was a paganized Christianity or Christianized paganism. God was the great bringer of prosperity in this world much more than he was the giver of salvation from it. The fields, forests, rivers, and mountains were still populated by elves, fairies, and other mysterious spirits. Individual desires and tribal loyalties were more important than abstract, universal ethics. (Compare medieval feudalism with the proto-communism of the earliest Christian churches.) And even inasmuch as people fought and died for Christianity, such as in the Crusades, it was for this European “folk Christianity” that was inextricably tied to quintessentially worldly concerns and identities. It took the traumatic religious, cultural, and intellectual revolutions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to break them of that.

Almost as soon as Europe began the process of “de-paganizing” itself in earnest – with the intention of purifying its Christianity – Christianity itself began to give way to scientific materialism. Its attempt to strip nature and culture of any spiritual import, and to reduce them to purely profane phenomena, set the stage for the “mechanical philosophy” that has sought to explain the world purely in terms of physical properties that can be understood through the methods of science and history. That project has now been carried so far that to explain any phenomenon in terms that aren’t purely physical seems whimsical and absurd. Spiritual or religious perspectives of any sort accordingly seem arbitrary and vacuous to many, and perhaps most, people. Christianity itself now hardly survives at all except in a secularized version of its ethical system. In a textbook example of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” the manner in which Christianity triumphed over paganism seems to have set the stage for its own demise, which followed swiftly.