The Teachings of Neo-Pagan Masculinity

Written by Aaron M. Renn |
Monday, August 28, 2023

I reject the idea that there’s no link between being a good man and being good at being a man. God created men, so the moral dimension is always present. At the same time, that morality can’t be divorced from the other qualities men were created to exhibit. Nevertheless, the idea of “good at being a man” vs “good man” is useful in helping us draw an important distinction.

One of my big themes has been the disconnect between men turning away from traditional authorities and institutions (churches, politicians, teachers, etc) and towards online men’s influencers like Jordan Peterson, Joe Rogan, and Andrew Tate.

I’ve spent a lot of time exploring what the online influencers are doing and what they are saying so that we can understand them and their appeal better, and perhaps in some cases elevate our own game in response and attract more of their young male audience to the church. Today I want to continue that by looking at the vision of neo-pagan masculinity put forth in books by two men’s influencers, Jack Donovan and Ryan Landry.

Jack Donovan and The Way of Men

The Way of Men is a short book by Jack Donovan published in 2012. It is a semi-famous book and has certainly sold a huge number of copies as it has 5,300 ratings on Amazon (only slightly fewer than Tim Keller’s The Reason for God). It appears to still be moving copies.

Donovan is an interesting figure to say the least. He’s gay, but rejects the label because he thinks the word has become coded to refer to a set of effeminate behaviors he rejects. He prefers the term “androphile,” and wrote an entire book on that subject that’s since been unpublished. (A significant number of online men’s influencers are gay). He’s also explicitly neo-pagan, worshipping Thor or some such. He was previously an ordained priest in the Church of Satan, and involved with various organizations in the alt-right (though has since disavowed the movement).

If anyone deserves the term pagan masculinist, it’s Donovan.

Interestingly, despite Donovan’s bizarre personal history, The Way of Men is essentially a mainstream book. For example, he interviewed Brett McKay of the Art of Manliness when writing it, and has been featured on that site several times. Although it has some themes I reject, this book is basically safe to read. I’m sure it has been bought many times by ordinary people with no idea about Donovan’s background.

Donovan’s take on manhood is essentially rooted in the basic evolutionary psychology framework that’s common to most online men’s influencers. In his view, our instinctual masculinity developed in primitive times, when humans faced mortal dangers. The traits men had to develop to survive in this environment are what come down to us as masculinity.

The most important concept in Donovan’s book is his claim that “the way of men is the way of the gang.” That is, the natural milieu of men is with a small group of other men – the hunting party, the warband, the street gang, a sports team, etc. Donovan writes:

A man is not merely a man but a man among men, in a world of men. Being good at being a man has more to do with a man’s ability to succeed with men and within groups of men than it does with a man’s relationship to any woman or any group of women.

While recognizing than men do often form gangs, I’m not sure I buy Donovan’s view of the gang as the fundamental unit of masculinity. However, there are valid points here:

  1. There’s a communal element to masculinity. Virtually all discussion today about how to be a better man focuses on essentially individual actions: eat better, work out, embrace the grind, impose your will on the world, get married and have kids, etc. I’m as guilty as anyone of this. But human beings are social and political animals, not lone wolves. Manhood is pursued and developed in a community of men. Iron sharpens iron after all.
  2. Manhood is defined by a man’s relationship with other men. Scholars like anthropologist David D. Gilmore have noted that manhood is an earned status. It’s not just about hitting a particular age. To be accepted as a man requires that a man perform in the activities and traits of men. There’s a standard that must be met. And the people who primarily determine whether that standard is met is other men – not women. Women merely reflect what other men have already determined. As Jordan Peterson put it, “Girls are attracted to boys who win status competitions with other boys.”

In other words, Donovan’s book is about the way of men, not the way of a man.

It’s interesting that evangelicals have essentially rejected these points. They do this by defining manhood almost entirely as a singular man’s relationship to women and children. For example, in the complementarian ur-text Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, John Piper writes:

Here we take the definition of masculinity, a phrase at a time and unfold its meaning and implications.



This phrase signals that the definitions are not exhaustive. There is more to masculinity and femininity, but there is not less. We believe this is at the heart of what true manhood means, even if there is a mystery to our complementary existence that we will never exhaust. [caps in original]

While acknowledging there’s more to manhood, this defines masculinity exclusively in terms of an individual man’s relationships to women. Right or wrong, this is what they teach. I don’t believe this is how anyone would have understood or defined masculinity until very recently.

It’s also interesting that mainstream society is very hostile to men being part of all-male groups. Obviously they don’t like literal gangs. But any all male space or organization will be targeted to force it to include women. The vast majority have already done. The most famous recent case here is probably the Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters. The New York Times wrote dozens, maybe even over a hundred article attacking the club for not having female members. (The club eventually capitulated). The few remaining all male organizations like college fraternities have a target on their back. Interestingly, churches are one of the few places were all male groups still seem to be accepted.

The lack of male groups, institutions, and spaces is almost certainly a factor in the various struggles men are experiencing today, as documented by people like researcher Richard Reeves in his book Of Boys and Men.

One way to attempt to ameliorate the problems boys and young men are experiencing would be to legitimize and encourage more all male spaces. But other than a few people who argue for more single sex education, this does not appear to be on the radar.

Possibly inspired by Donovan, one of the core ideas of the dissident right is the männerbund, which they define as a brotherhood of men united in common purpose. Their particular purpose, of course, being right wing politics. However, their attempts at männerbund creation have seen many failures. Their members don’t actually seem to have much actual loyalty to each other, as a large number of the various doxxes of anonymous far right accounts originated with people inside the group ratting out their peers to the press. (I have read that Donovan has his own “gang” of men. It may be an exception. I don’t know anything about it).

In terms of the content of what masculinity entails, Donovan focuses on four of what he calls the “tactical virtues”: Strength, Courage, Mastery, and Honor.

Here is where the typical feminist objection would arise. Can’t women be strong? Can’t women be courageous? This seems to be something evangelicals struggle to respond to, and I believe accounts for part of why Piper defines masculinity the way he does. There are several extended Bible passages that discuss the relationship of men and women in different ways, such as by saying the husband is the head of the home and the wife is to submit. But when it comes to characteristics like courage, the pickings are much slimmer. Given the general “biblicist” approach of evangelicalism, if they can’t proof-text something from the Bible, then they struggle to advocate it. And some feminist writer can simply respond with an example of a “gynocentric interruption” like Deborah in Judges.

Donovan has a different response to this objection. He doesn’t deny that women can be strong, courageous, etc. Strength is a masculine virtue not because only men are strong – though Donovan affirms that men are generally physically stronger than women – but because men and only men are judged on their strength. He writes:

Women can demonstrate strength, but strength is a quality that defines masculinity. Greater strength differentiates men from women. Weak men are regarded as less manly, but no one really cares or notices if a woman is physically weaker than her peers.

A man who is weak fails the test of manhood. Whereas almost no one judges a women negatively for being weak.

It’s similar for courage. A man who displays cowardice when he should display courage earns the contempt of his fellow men. A woman who is courageous may be praised by others. But if she isn’t courageous, if she runs way, she’s not going to be judged as deficient in femininity. Donovan writes, “Both men and women can be game, but status for human females has rarely depended on a woman’s willingness to fight. Demure, polite, passive women are attractive to men and are generally well-liked by other women.”

I was surprised that he didn’t talk more about loyalty, which I would have considered a preeminent virtue of the primitive male gang. He does mention it. The word appears eight times in the book. But he doesn’t list it as a separate tactical virtue. I wrote about loyalty in newsletter #58.

Donovan also echoes the common take that there’s an amoral quality to masculinity as he describes it. The classic expression would that there’s a difference between being a good man and being good at being a man. A mob boss might demonstrate all the tactical virtues, while being morally evil. There can also be good men who don’t measure up in terms of masculinity. But being neo-pagan in orientation, Donovan is less concerned with good vs. evil than he is friend vs. enemy. For example, he writes about 9/11 hijackers:

What about suicide bombers? I’d say that hijacking a plane with a box knife and flying it into a building takes balls of steel. I don’t have to like it, but if I’m being honest with myself, I can’t call those guys unmanly. Enemies of my tribe, yes. Unmanly, no.

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