A recent study by the London-based Benedict Centre has shown that up to half of self-described atheists and agnostics across different countries believe in ‘underlying forces of good and evil’ and that ‘significant events are “meant to be”’. This is a reminder that a large part of the decline of religious practice and belief in the West is not about rejecting the supernatural realm, but adopting a kind of vague paganism. This should not be confused, however, with the paganism of the ancient world.
Contrary to what is sometimes claimed, the people of ancient Greece and Rome had an uneasy conscience about many of the practices Christianity later suppressed, which are re-emerging today. The Greek historian of Rome, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, praised Rome’s mythical founder, Romulus, for making marriage a holy and indissoluble institution (Roman Antiquities II.25), from which it later declined. It’s far from clear what historical basis there might be to this claim, but it represents an ideal, a golden age, from which the Romans and Greeks of Dionysius’s own day fell short.