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…