Spiritual, Not Religious by Hunter Baker

Book Review

Spiritual, Not Religious

Pagans & Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac by Steven D. Smith

One of the staples of the sociological view of religion is that it is a sort of serious game that we play in which we glorify some collective vision of ourselves. In other words, the “cult” in culture is manufactured by us, for us. When religion is considered that way, it is easy to understand something like idol worship and systems of sacrifice. We simply affirm our participation in the ritual thing and put some skin in the game. It is a way of being a member of the group. Because this cultic identity is important to the broader society by way of ordering classes, enchanting an otherwise mundane existence, sanctifying law, and/or even giving structure to the calendar, everyone must participate in it. This sociological religion is paganism. It was the faith of the Roman Empire before Christianization. 

Paganism was not greatly concerned with matters of truth and doctrine. It was religion oriented around participation and performance rather than seeking the ultimate truth about reality. Where the Christian “believed” in God, the pagans “had” gods. Where Christians heatedly debated questions of heresy, it hardly occurred to pagans to have such disputes at all. But when it came to religion and deference to the public cult (if only to demand a simple sentence or a symbolic action with no real expectation of actual belief), the pagans were utterly serious. Many Christians faced torture and death in consequence of refusing to comply.


Hunter Baker , J.D., Ph.D., is the dean of arts and sciences at Union University, a fellow of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and an affiliate scholar of the Acton Institute.

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