A Brief Examination and Critical Evaluation of the Religion Most Commonly Known as: WICCA

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The phrasing of the title chosen for this study should provide a hint about the difficulty of trying to corral all the various aspects of this worldview. It is a belief system which is hard to define. The name for it is just one example. There is no doubt that "Wicca" is the most common appellation (especially these days) but it is by no means the only name. Those who adhere to and practice these teachings might just as likely call it "the Old Religion" or "the Craft". Some may prefer instead to speak of "Paganism" or "Neo-paganism". Still others may like to refer to an "Earth religion", or the "God and Goddess" or simply about the working of "Magick".

FYI -- ĎMagickí is usually spelled with the Ďkí by Wiccans to distinguish between a witch invoking energy from the universe to accomplish a goal and the Ďmagicí performed by an illusionist on a stage to entertain an audience.

But the confusion and controversy doesnít stop with the various designations for the Wiccan lifestyle. There are disagreements about its true history; there are several different traditions arising from different places and founders; and, most of all, there are widely divergent approaches to practicing the religion. While some of these things can be said of most (if not all) movements, there is a particular lack of cohesiveness in the Wiccan movement. Steve Russo wrote that getting a handle on it was "like trying to nail applesauce to the wall!" (Whatís the Deal with Wicca?, p. 18.)

Why bother studying Wicca?

There is an underlying reason for all the ambiguity. And this reason is connected to a question we should ask here at the outset of the study which is: "Why examine Wiccan philosophy in the first place?" The answer is simply that we must do so because of the explosive growth of the movement in recent years. There has been a dramatic increase in interest and an almost unconditional acceptance of Wicca and witches in American society at large and, indeed, around the world. Consider the following quotations regarding this matter:

Wicca is the fastest growing religion in America and the number of Wiccans is doubling every two years or so. (Zimmerman and Gleason, The Complete Idiotís Guide to Wicca and Witchcraft, p. 4 as cited by Ankerberg and Burroughs, Whatís the Big Deal About Other Religions?, p.108.)
This [the publication of the book Witchcraft Today by Gerald Gardner] was to be the start of the whole re-emergence of Witchcraft as a religion and the eventual establishment of Wicca as an accepted everyday practice around the world. Today it is the fastest growing religious movement in America. (Raymond Buckland, Wicca for One, p. 21.)
The Wiccan community is growing at an exceptional rate, and is projected to be the Third Largest religion by 2012 (Christians and Pagans Agree, Wicca Emerging as Americaís Third Religion, PRWeb, April 21, 2005 cited by Ankerberg and Burroughs, p. 108.)
Wicca is huge! Itís everywhere--thanks to an extreme makeover thatís happened in the media with witchcraft. Images of witches with pointy noses flying on broomsticks are gone. Instead weíve got Sabrina, Buffy and the Halliwell sisters. Witches have been interviewed on the Oprah Winfrey Show and on cable news shows on Fox, CNN, and MSNBC. Thereís a whole new respect for witches today. If youíre really trying to be politically correct, you donít talk bad about Wiccans. The Puyallup School District of twenty thousand students banned Halloween parties because they wanted to avoid offending the Wiccan religion. (Russo, Whatís the Deal with Wicca?, p. 38. Cites MSNBC News, Oct. 22, 2004 re: Puyallup School District.)

No doubt, some may wonder and ask, "Is Wicca an actual religion?" If we define religion as the way a person comes to know and interact with deity, then certainly the answer must be "Yes" for Wiccans believe strongly in their ideas of the God and Goddess and act accordingly (more on that later). Also Wicca is recognized by the United States government. On September 4, 1986 in the case Dettmer v. Landon, a Federal Court of Appeals ruled that Wiccan belief and practice qualifies as a constitutionally sanctioned religion and should be recognized as such by law. Since then there have been several more rulings in favor of the Craft including official recognition and acceptance within the U.S. armed forces. Thus, Wiccan churches are tax exempt and their priests and priestesses can be chaplains and are legally allowed to officiate at weddings (which they call "handfastings" -- the first such one was performed in the United Kingdom in September, 2004). So from the standpoints of both practicality and legality Wicca definitely is a religion.

Estimates of the actual number of Wiccans in America vary wildly. A 2001 poll by the American Religious Identification Survey reported that at least 134,000 adults claimed to be Wiccan. Some would say this number is very low because:

  1. misunderstanding and even persecution causes many Wiccans to hide their beliefs and practices; and
  2. Wicca is extremely popular with teenaged young people who were probably not counted.
In the mid 1990ís the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance estimated that the actual number was around 750,000 making Wicca fifth behind Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Hinduism in the United States (cf. www.religioustolerance.org/wic_hist.htm). Other estimates range from lows of 30 to 100 thousand to highs of 1.5 to 2 million. Accuracy in this matter is impossible but there is no doubt Wicca is a significant and growing movement.
FYI -- Are there many such groups around here? Well, in the east Puget Sound region, as of September 3, 2009, a quick internet search finds six Wiccan groups conducting public meetings from Seattle/Bellevue down to Olympia.

Why is Wicca suddenly so popular?

There are several specific reasons that Wiccan thought has become attractive to Western society in the past several decades but they all relate to one overriding factor, namely, compatibility with the overall cultural mindset. In other words, for now, Wicca provides exactly what a great many people in America are seeking. What are some of these ideas and values which are helping Wicca expand?

Environmental emphasis -- Probably first and foremost among Pagans is the idea that the earth is everything. Prominent Wiccan Laura Wildman comments,
We practice an Earth- based religion. The earth is a living thing. It is a dirty, sticky, slimy, soft, hard, beautiful, ugly, wonderful place. Everything upon it, from concrete to moldy bread, can be used as a magical tool. ... Whether our hands are covered with flour from kneading dough or intuitively finding the right place on a staff to adhere a stone, we make an intimate connection with gifts of the earth. (Miria Liguana and Nina Metzner, The Complete Idiotís Guide to Wicca Craft, p. xvii.)
Promise of power -- The (close) second big enticement for those attracted to Wicca seems to be the offer of the ability to handle the issues of life. Steve Russo comments,
Everything from cones of power to magick is at your disposal according to Wicca. Witches believe spells can find someone to love you, make you glamorous, have a happy home, rid yourself of guilt and shame, keep cash flowing, take care of a crabby teacher or get ungrounded. (Whatís the Deal with Wicca?, p. 45.)
While serious practitioners (e.g., Raymond Buckland) would deny that this is a proper motive for joining the movement, it is nevertheless promoted by the information available. Every Wicca book I have seen has extensive ďhow-toĒ sections.
Feminist flavor -- The allure of power ties in with this aspect. Over the years (decades, centuries) many women have felt powerless to control or change their lives. Part of this was because society has generally been dominated by males (and in many cases still is). For many women being part of a religion in which the female aspect (Goddess, Mother Earth) is dominant and they have personal control is extremely attractive. This helps explain why even though men can and do participate and several of the key figures in the revival of Wicca were and are men, still the religion is overwhelming female in composition.
Choose your own course -- This, too, ties in with the power aspect. Consider the words of Miria Liguana and Nina Metzner in the Introduction to The Complete Idiotís Guide to Wicca Craft:
Letís start right here by saying that the most important and unique tool for walking the path of Wicca Craftworking is you! One of the most beautiful and enduring truths about practicing Wicca is that this is a nature-based religion that encourages you to connect in an active and positive way with the divine energy of the source of creation: the All. (p. xviii.)
And this is not a solitary comment. Throughout the book they emphasize that there is no one right way to do anything -- just do t hings the way you wish, whatever feels right. And that is, I think, the underlying reason for all the aforementioned ambiguity among Wiccans. They have a big picture but ultimately everyone has the opportunity to do things their own way.

We will return to some of these themes as we explore the belief system in more depth and compare it to Christian thought. For now we just need to see that all of these ideas are prominent in our culture today. The cause of protecting the environment has become sacred to many. And militant feminism, while not as stridently controversial as in the 1960ís and 70ís, is a cause for which many still fight passionately. It might even be said that it is only quieter because many feminist goals are pretty much a matter of concession these days -- it is politically correct. With the astonishing emphasis on the (mythical) supernatural in books, on television and in movies these days, it should not surprise us that some people might be foolish enough take a closer look at obtaining an effective, secret, mystical power to deal with everyday problems. In essence they are looking for quick fixes to life issues.

FYI -- Did you know that the Pagan Federation had to appoint someone to deal solely with the flood of letters in response to the Harry Potter phenomenon? According to Steve Russo in Whatís the Deal with Wicca? (p. 41) they actually receive letters addressed to Headmaster Albus Dumbledore requesting admittance into Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. Amazing and sad that people (and some very young) could want something so badly they convince themselves that a fantasy might be true.

And of course the overwhelming philosophy of our day is that everyone needs to be tolerant so that all can live life as they choose. Nobody should tell us whatís right and wrong, good and bad, black and white. There are no absolute standards and no one to whom we must be accountable. We should each be completely free to chart our own course in life. Thatís what many these days claim is true.

Certainly Wicca is in accordance with all these views and, at this point, to some degree helps perpetuate them. Instead of having to hide in shame and fear, witchcraft is now out of the (broom) closet.

(I borrowed that one from the religious tolerance website -- thought it was funny).
It is a religion which has apparently found its proper place and time and, therefore, is experiencing enormous growth. Speaking of place and time letís now examine how Wicca came to be and how it got here.

Next: History