Blinded by the Moon?

Or is Wicca a legitimate religion?

Sophie’s stirred Troppo commenters up into a debate questioning whether membership of the Church of Satan ought to be considered a legitimate religion. Among other things, I do some work in the sociology of religion, and having published some research on Wicca, I’d been mulling over the idea of doing a post on Wicca and Neo-Paganism and it now seems even more topical – in an example of the sort of synchronicity that’s characterised Troppo recently!

In the USA, sociologists and anthropologists can make a bit of cash on the side doing consultancies for the IRS on whether new cults are “legitimate religions” and thus qualify for tax-exempt status (Scientology fought a long legal battle over this). What anyone working in this field will tell you, though, is that though religion is one of those words whose meaning we think we all know, pinning down its essence is another matter entirely. Definitions which fix it functionally – ie as a body of belief articulating authoritative moral values – can include secular beliefs or movements. For instance Marxism is often argued to have many of the characteristics of a religion. Definitions which try to pin it down substantively – ie a belief in a spiritual realm or a deity or deities – exclude things we would like to describe as religions. Theravada Buddhism is atheist – at least according to our cultural notion of theism/atheism.

This raises the further point about how the word came to have the meaning we ascribe to it today. Most major world languages outside the Indo-European ones have no cognate term. The Jesuits got into a lot of trouble with the Vatican in the 17th Century for accepting the use of the Chinese word for ‘Heaven’ in place of the Latin word for a personal god – Deus. Any attempt to find the “essence” of Hinduism, or to determine whether a particular Chinese person living in a rural area is Buddhist, Taoist or Confucianist (another atheistic set of beliefs) is doomed to certain confusion and failure. So aside from being cultural, is the term historical? Yes – originally derived from the Latin religio – meaning something that bound one as a sacred obligation – the term has only had its current meaning since the Counter-Reformation. In other words, the notion that a religion is a coherent system of beliefs and truth-claims is the product of the Protestant challenge to Catholicism, the dogmatic response, and the rationalising trends in knowledge of early modernity from whose effects theology did not escape.

So, if religion is a peculiarly Western and modern way of thinking, what then of Wicca (“modern Witchcraft” or Neo-Paganism)?

A short history of Wicca might go something like this. Invented in 1936 by Gerald Gardner, a retired English public servant, Wicca came out into the open after the 1952 repeal of the Witchcraft laws in the UK, gained much prominence in the press in the late 50s and early 60s, and having caught the counter-cultural zeitgeist, spread quickly to America (and Australia). Wicca sub-divided into several traditions – Gardnerian and Alexandrian being two of the most prominent, and also tied in neatly with Feminist Goddess spirituality and deep ecology. In the mid to late 1990s, Wicca exploded into popular culture with movies such as The Craft and TV shows like Buffy and Charmed. Modern witchcraft today is an uneasy co-existence between a mystery nature religion (Wicca), and a pop-culture phenomenon epitomised in Australia by the rock singer turned Witch pinup for teenage girls, Fiona Horne. Neo-Paganism is an umbrella term for a range of religious movements, including Wicca, most of which have a nature or earth-based spirituality.

A longer (and excellent) history of Wicca can be found in Ronald Sutton’s The Triumph of the Moon. His book, and Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon would be the two texts I would recommend to anyone with a serious interest.

The most interesting thing about Sutton’s magisterial articulation of the history of Wicca and British culture is his revelation that Wicca has a “myth of origins” – akin to the “invention of tradition” which characterised many things we now think of as timeless – for instance Scottish tartans and English coronation rituals.

Much of the material which Gardner drew upon derives from late 19th century anthropological perspectives, and in many ways it seems that the scholarship of a century ago has informed modern neo-pagan practice. As Adler points out, other aspects of Wiccan practice derive directly from some of the early texts used the term ‘esbat’ was almost certainly invented by Margaret Murray in 1921. There are some incontrovertible facts for instance the existence of a Western Occult tradition deriving originally from Kabbalistic and later alchemical practices which influenced much of the practice of ritual magic in the 19th and 20th century. Some of this tradition found its way into Wicca through Gardner’s borrowings from Crowley. Similarly, there is no doubt that much folk magic and healing knowledge existed in pre-modern Europe, and it is quite possible (but not demonstrable) that some of this descends to Wicca, or that there may be witches whose traditions have been handed down through their families. Nor can it be gainsaid that Goddess worship was an aspect of pre-Christian religion. Nevertheless, Hutton has very convincingly argued on the basis of the historical evidence that Wicca is not a survival of a pagan cult, and had its orgins with Gardner and the occult milieu of early 20th century England.

In a sense, this is interesting, as Wicca becomes a peculiarly postmodern religion. I want to make a distinction between postmodernism as a body of theory (to which I do not subscribe) and postmodernity as a periodisation – summing up some of what is distinctly different about a de-traditionalised and mediatised culture that we’ve inhabited for around about the last 30 years. Broadly, scholars of religion have pointed to the degree of choice that now is available to people seeking their own spirituality (you can be baptised as a Methodist but become a Buddhist) but also the fraying of the threads holding together orthodox Christian Churches such as Catholicism and Anglicanism. The fact that I could characterise myself as a semi-lapsed progressive Catholic with a penchant for elaborate Latin rite liturgies and a pro-choice perspective is indicative of this development.

I don’t want to talk about the specific beliefs and practices characterising Wicca – for a quick intro go here. What I want to note is that in its revaluation of the Feminine and nature, its distaste for hierarchy, its concern for tradition and history, its lack of a canonical text or liturgy, and above all the fact that it is largely spread through written texts and on the net and anyone can be a “sole practitioner”, Wicca picks up on some of the most powerful social and cultural trends which characterise our world today. To return to our starting point, the best definition of a religion is one based on some commonality between practices and beliefs – a Wittgensteinian language game if you like. Witggenstein pointed out that “sport” as a concept made sense despite the fact that some sports don’t involve a ball, some don’t involve much physical effort (eg darts), and so on. Religion is a bit like that too. So I think that the judgement as to what is a legitimate religion is always value-laden and conditioned by our social and cultural values. To that degree, I don’t know if the term “legitimate religion” has a lot of meaning, but for this postmodern Catholic at least, Wicca is a religion for which I have some respect…

About Mark Bahnisch

Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist and is the founder of this blog. He has an undergraduate degree in history and politics from UQ, and postgraduate qualifications in sociology, industrial relations and political economy from Griffith and QUT. He has recently been awarded his PhD through the Humanities Program at QUT. Mark's full bio is on this page.
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Francis Xavier Holden
2021 years ago

Any similar thoughts on Scientology?

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2021 years ago

I’ll have a think, Francis, and get back to you. I’m off for a cheap Malaysian meal and a few beers in the Valley soon… my quick answer would be that I would compare Scientology much more to various fundamentalist sects in its authoritarianism and its distance from the broader society – and also that Scientology is much more modernist than postmodernist – for instance by presenting itself as a science. Its origins in science fiction mags are interesting though!

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2021 years ago

Quick postscript – what I meant also to mention was the significance of Wicca’s positive valuation of sex and sexuality (and in some traditions, ritual nudity as well).

Peter Murphy
Peter Murphy
2021 years ago

I don’t know if you can count Scientology as a religion; you could definitely count it as a cult. It’s an unusual cult. It shares a lot of the characteristics of a cult: secrecy, centralization, authoritarianism, jargon (as only L. Ron could produce!) and hierarchy. However, the high amount of money it demands of adherents for going up the hierarchy (thousands of dollars per level) makes it ususual among cults. Most target the poor and meek and hopefully vulnerable. There isn’t much supernatural in Scientology: the whole point of the exercise is to improve your mental health.

In fact, it’s not until you get to the secret OT III level that you discover the truth! The great galactic warlord Xenu, 65 million years ago – did some sort of massacre of bullions of people. Their souls came back as “Body Thetans” and infested all us humans, causing all sorts of mental illnesses! Only Scientology can rid us of those pesky varmints! Throw young Jimmy’s Prozac away, and strap on the E-meters! Or so the story goes.

Of course, it could be a religion. All great religions need their heretics, and Scientology has the splinter group FreeZone. Not all cults manage that.

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2021 years ago

of course it is a religion. A religion is simply where YOU have to do something to get somewhere.

Notice that Christianity is not religious!

cs
cs
2021 years ago

for instance Scottish tartans and English coronation rituals1

1. Edited by EJH and Terence Ranger perchance Mark?

(Nice post – I’m over here escaping an invasion of RWDBs at BP. It’s terrible when you can’t even go home to get away!)

Scott Wickstein
2021 years ago

Debates about the nature of Satanism? Gee, the election must be over. Thank God things are getting back to normal.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2021 years ago

You’re spot on as usual, Chris. I wasn’t at all surprised by the coronation rituals and the Scottish tartans, but I must confess that the Welsh Eisteddfod’s recent provenance surprised me! It’s a fabulous book!

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2021 years ago

Thank God for Satanism, Scott? :)

sophie
sophie
2021 years ago

A really interesting post, Mark. It’s an extraordinary phenomenon..It’s certainly true that though the religion called ‘Wicca’ is actually postmodern, witches have always been a phenomenon in all societies. And they’ve actually usually been a part of folk Christianity; we had a family like that in the south-western French village we came from, who were both devout, and who had this amazing reputation as healers, second-sighters and so on(people would ask them things like whether they’d get a job, or to find stuff for them). People used to bring them presents–they were a bit wary of them too, but they were still very much a part of the village. David also tells me that in his hometown of Tenbury Wells in Worcestershire, there was a lady up the road–the canteen lady at the school–who had a certain reputation with things like warts. One of his friends went to her to get rid of a wart, and she said to him, come back to me tomorrow and I’ll give you threepence if the wart is gone. He woke the next morning–and the wart was gone. He got his threepence!

Fyodor
2021 years ago

Mark,

Thanks for the post – very interesting. I doubt, however, that you’ve really established wicca as a “legitimate religion”.

If you’re going to take the post-modern view that religious legitimacy is a concept that is “value-laden and conditioned by our social and cultural values” then the whole exercise is pointless and all claims to religious legitimacy are equally valid or equally bogus.

However, I would argue that we can distinguish between religions which have stood the test of time, have been subject to intellectual analysis from within and without and laid claim to a significant following, and those which appear to be faddish cults with considerably less longevity than those of Mithras or Isis.

Regarding Sophie’s point, most cultures at the rural level have produced animistic folk magic, but this is arguably different from a full-blown religion with elaborate cosmology, ethical values etc. In our culture we have a negative view of “witches” because of historical Christian antagonism to practictioners (e.g. midwives) of folk remedies in pagan traditions. Perversely, it is the apparently romantic and rebellious aspects to this misunderstood “witchery” that seem to be what attracts the more credulous adherents of wicca and satanism. Most people are simply profoundly ignorant about the evolution of religious beliefs and practices.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2021 years ago

Fyodor, I’m not particularly aiming to convince anyone about what is or isn’t a “legitimate religion”. Nor is my point postmodern. My argument is that any judgement about legitimacy is inevitably a normative and therefore subjective one. Your test of duration, intellectual analysis and size of following is not an objective one but also one conditioned by factors that we hold to be important in our culture. In the time of the scholastics, when philosophy was well and truly subordinated to theology, Catholicism would not have met that test – ineffable mysteries surpass rational understanding and the sort of “rational analysis” that St Thomas Aquinas performed was something that proceeded from very different premisses and by a very different method than what we would now see as intellectual analysis.

Similarly, I don’t think that being aware of the principles on which we make judgements negates those judgements and rendering them accessible to critique – if anything it should make them more defensible. I have no objection, for instance, to the use of certain criteria to determine whether a cult qualifies for the legal privileges accorded to religions or for whether it may be harmful to its members (any number of Californian based cults spring to mind here).

I’m not casting any stones – I just want people to think a bit more deeply as to the basis on which we make judgements of others’ religious or spiritual beliefs.

What Sophie wrote is very interesting and what you write about folk magic is true – though there is certainly an elaborate cosmology in Western ritual magic. There is also a well documented literature on the processes by which governments and medical practitioners stigmatised and devalued folk medicine in the 19th century. Certainly, hostility towards women in particular as folk healers has tended to exacerbate the negative attributes of the figure of the witch in our culture, and Wicca inevitably suffers from this representation.

For my mind, I should add – Wiccan ethics are quite attractive to me. A nice absence of the condemnatory principles we find in most major religious traditions.

Fyodor
2021 years ago

Mark,

I take your point that issues of legitimacy require a normative/subjective perspective, but without making that subjective judgement you invite the relativist inertia of accepting all religions as equally valid, no matter how absurd they appear. This may be an acceptable position for you, but I would argue that some religions have greater claim to respect (e.g. tax exemptions and other goodies we see fit to dole out to religious groups) than others. I accept that this is a normative judgement on my part, but I would also contend that it is a judgement that most people would be willing to make. As you say, it depends upon the criteria applied. Mine may not be as objective as you might like, but I notice you haven’t suggested alternatives. I would also contend that the Catholicism of St Thomas Acquinas’ day would have passed two of the criteria I suggested, i.e. longevity and popularity.

I’ve enjoyed your post, and don’t want to be too critical, but what pisses me off about the wiccans is the bastardisation of a real (albeit dead) religion by wishful thinking role-players. That is, I’m not offended by what they believe in, but by their claim to historical legacy/legitimacy which their invented anachronistic “religion” does not possess. I dare say many of its adherents have no idea they’re indulging in make-believe. Apologies, but I’m just a history nut having a rant. Thanks for listening/reading, and for the thread.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2021 years ago

No worries, Fyodor. I would point out that there does appear to be some acceptance among more thoughtful Wiccans that the “myth of origins” is simply that – though obviously this has caused controversy over the years.

I’m not adopting a relativist position – I make it fairly clear at the end of the post that in my (normative, subjective) judgement at least Wicca has something to offer. And I’m prepared to offer reasons in support of that judgement. What I want to avoid though is a rush to judgement.

Norman
Norman
2021 years ago

Scientology didn’t begin as a religion. It sought that rfeuge only after it began running into legal problems. Wiccans on the other hand fill a need for people who, in our increasingly secular age, couldn’t accept the non-rational aspects of established religions, wouldn’t fit into the Masons, but still had similar primaeval drives to those who established the various older institutions.
Sadly, they’re just being human.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2021 years ago

Norman, were the legal problems related to wanting tax-exemption or was there something else as well? I used to know – some long drawn out legal fight – affected in some way by Hubbard’s “disappearance”, but it’s gone from my memory now!

Norman
Norman
2021 years ago

Mark, I recall them getting into legal difficulties because of their unethical dealings with vulnerable people. They posed initially as a group helping people via their scientific approach to psychology. Their best means of avoiding scrutiny lay in becoming a “religion”, which also, of course, had many financial advantages.
I can’t put dates on any of this, and asking them would be like asking the Masons about their origins. While visiting the Scientology centre in New York in December, 2002, it was interesting to see how limited was their representatives’ knowledge of the past. Since they saw me as someone who was susceptible to their drivel, everyone was anxious to tell me as much as possible, and you could tell they were distraught that they didn’t personally know more. But equally clearly, it had never occurred to them that perhaps they should know more. After all, their leaders must have told them all that they needed to know.
Ain’t faith wonderful? Although sometimes a good memory might be even better?

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2021 years ago

Thanks Norman for the info. Can’t say those sort of dealings surprise me.

Carla O'Harris
2021 years ago

Please note that my yahoo group Wicca Apologia specifically debunks theories like Hutton’s which try to discredit Wicca’s history. I demonstrate on this list that Hutton represents revisionist history posing as actual history, and unfortunately, because of the ubiquitousness of his book, it has become authoritative. Most elements of Wicca have a long history in European culture, and thus, Gardner’s assertions have ample context.

Carla O'Harris
2021 years ago

Please note that the URL for the group is

http://groups.yahoo.com/group/WiccaApologia/

Rob
Rob
2021 years ago

This looks like the revival of an old post which I’m sorry I missed, so I can’t resist responding.

I took a fascinating course on ‘Magic and Witchcraft in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe’ at Melbourne U in the mid 1980’s.

At that time no serious scholar entertained the idea that Wicca was a pre-Christian pagan survival, and Murray’s theses were regarded with universal derision. This was because:

* the depictions of witchcraft found in the great demonologies (those of Kramer & Sprenger, Nicholas Remy and Henri Boguet among others) clearly represent recognisably Christian artefacts, practices and cosmogonies, albeit inverted in some cases

* pagan survivals littered the medieval environment anyway (May Day rituals, etc.) and were well recognised by the church as being such

* there is no evidence on the historical record that witchcraft had or was seen to have pre-Christian roots (other than the primordial belief in evil-doing, or maleficium, as the church understood it, which is common to virtually all pre-industrial cultures)

I’d be interested to learn if there has been a movement in scholarly opinion since then.

Carla O'Harris
2021 years ago

There has been a great deal of work looking at the actual trial records. Especially noteworthy is Carlo Ginzburg’s work (The Night Battles, Ecstasies), Eva Pocs’ work (Between the Living and the Dead), and Behringer (The Shaman of Oberstdorf). These have found actual folk-motifs from the mouths of people on trial that prove a general folkloric basis for witchcraft as fertility/fairy faith.

Mark Bahnisch
2021 years ago

Carla, I’m sorry I don’t have time to respond more fully but I will note that evidence taken from trial records and particularly from the very comprehensive records of the Inquisition have to be treated with great suspicion – particularly since the power of suggestion is often at work in such interrogations, and statements were often obtained by torture. It’s noteworthy as well that the statements usually reflect Christian notions of heresy or devil-worship rather than any independent tradition. The way Murray treats the evidence is slapdash and dishonest.

Ginzburg’s work is interesting but the evidence really doesn’t support the conclusions he wants to hang on it.

I’m sympathetic to the argument about surviving traditions, but as a scholar I think that Sutton has done a comprehensive job of refuting it. The most important fact is that there is no surviving independent testimony, and that is unparalleled for a movement that’s said to have endured for so long.

So I’m afraid, though keeping an open mind, I’m in agreement with Rob on this one. The short answer is that later scholarship has confirmed tjhe conclusions he discusses from the mid-80s.

Folk magic has an independent documented tradition but it’s a very different thing from what’s claimed as the heritage of neo-paganism. The phenomena Ginzburg talks about are also different.

Sorry, again, that I don’t have time at the moment to respond at greater length. Perhaps I’ll revisit this topic and I’ll be sure to look at your website if I do.

Rob
Rob
2021 years ago

Mark and Carla, I agree that localised records can throw up interesting reflections of folk beliefs. Given that these are embodied in the tales people heard on their parents’ knees, this should not be surprising.

So much of the ‘evidence’ is contaminated by the fact that it was acquired under torture, as Mark says. All kinds of strange things came out as the inquisitors went about their ghastly business, often – during the period of the great witch-trials – with a list of questions which they reiterated until they got the answers they wanted.