All Religions Begin as New Religions

All religions have at least one foundational myth as well as an actual history. The myth is not historically true, but instead transmits some of the spiritual values on which the religion is based. The history is true in fact, but, as history, cannot convey values.

All human beings, as children, believe that the foundational myth of their religion is actual history. Many people in late adolescence realize that the myth is not true as history, and begin to search for the factual history of their faith. Some of these, as mature adults, realize that the myth and the history convey different types of truth. They learn to live with the tension between the two.

So long as a person believes that the foundational myth is historical, and does not know what the actual history is, he or she will reduce the meaning of the myth to historical terms, and therefore will not understand the spiritual values that the myth was intended to convey by its creators. I believe that if we learn the actual history of modern Witchcraft as accurately as possible, doing so can liberate the foundational myths of the Craft to reveal their more profound meanings.

The Craft was founded as a distinct religion in the 1930s. Like all new religions, it was created from pre-existing raw materials that were combined in new ways and into a new overall structure. Since its elements are old, but its structure is new, it is neither entirely a survival from the past nor entirely a modern creation. Modern Witchcraft is based squarely on magical and occult traditions that go back at least to Hellenistic Alexandria, and yet it has transformed the elements from those traditions in new and often surprising ways. In explaining the origins of the Craft movement, I trace the sources of its elements in the older traditions and the ways in which the Craft does something new with each element.

In emphasizing that the Craft is a new religion, I am insisting on its ontological equality with every other religion, because all religions begin as new religions, which then survive only because they continue to evolve and adapt themselves to changing circumstances. For Islam and Buddhism, their origin as new religions is obvious. Hinduism as we now have it is a sibling of Buddhism, since it resulted from an acceptance of some, though not all, of the Buddha’s reforms. Judaism as the state religion of Judah dates from 621 B.C.E. (I will discuss this point further in a later essay); but Christianity and Judaism as we have them are siblings, arising together from the ashes of Jerusalem, which was destroyed in 69 C.E. But what about “indigenous” religions that have apparently been around forever? Wait for it.

There was a fair amount of media hysteria in the 1970s and 1980s, fueled especially by Evangelical Christians, over “cults.” People were running around, saying, “Omigawd, people are starting cults. Something must be w-r-o-n-g with our society,” and a great deal of energy has been wasted on looking for what’s “wrong”—when in fact there was nothing wrong. The members of the Group on New Religious Movements of the American Academy of Religion, and most of the members of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, were agreed that “The word `cult’ means `a religion I don’t approve of,'” and tried to avoid using that word. People were just starting new religions. Furthermore, when we look at history, we discover that people start new religions all the time, all over the world, whenever they are not forcibly prevented from doing so by an established state church. In other words, starting new religions is the normal state.

Current scholars regard the creating of new religions as a normal, healthy, and universal activity by which creative people (that is, the educated middle class, not the outcasts) in all societies attempt to meet their own religious needs; and as such, its existence does not need any further explanation. Furthermore, since all religions begin at some time and place as new religions, the study of new religions is not a luxury; it is not the study of fringe sects, marginal people, epiphenomena, weird hippies, and so on. Rather, it is the study of characteristics central to all religions. (Having been trained in the techniques of New Testament scholarship, which I applied to the documents written by Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente, I am intrigued and, in fact, rather amused by the light this enterprise has shed for me on the evolution of early Christianity and the formation of the New Testament collection—but those are matters for another essay.)

In a free society, people vote with their feet: if their religious needs are not being met by the established churches, then they will set out to create their own religion. Furthermore, since a large bureaucratic organization cannot be all things to all people, there will always be some people whose needs are not being met; and so new religions will be founded all the time. In about 1985, I proposed an “evolutionary” model to explain these patterns. At just about the same time, Professor Rodney Stark of the University of Washington was proposing a “free market” model for the same purpose.

Of course, such an understanding of religious creativity, of religion as creative, of creativity as religion, is very recent, and rather sophisticated. It is certainly not held by all the theologians in the professional societies. It would be unrealistic to expect people in general to think about religion in this way—and, of course, they don’t. What generally happens is that the founders of a new religion claim that it is instead an old religion, in order to have a counterclaim against the hoary antiquity that the established churches claim for themselves, and in order to speak in terms that ordinary people can grasp.

In claiming to be an old religion, a new religion may claim to be a revival of an all-but-defunct religion from the past; or to be revitalizing an existing religion by reaching back to its true, pure, and pristine roots; or to be a new revelation of ancient truths that had been garbled in all previous transmissions from the Powers On High; and so on. Very often this claim takes the form of a discovery of a manuscript that had been hidden away long before. The emphasis on elements from the past is the common, universal thread, and this is always an emphasis on something real; but understanding exactly what those elements are, and why they are important, always requires a great deal of work.

The confusion arises from the fact that these elements of the past are invariably understood in terms of the new religion’s foundational myth, which is the story that states in some way (often quite symbolically or parabolically) the values that are central to this new religion. As Robert Ellwood observed, “In modern cults the functional myth is generally the story of the experience of the founder which establishes his ecstatic (shamanistic) capacity and his access to a new means of ultimate transformation, such as Madame Blavatsky’s initiation by the Masters.” That is, this foundational myth describes the experience that transmuted the religion’s founder from an ordinary person into a living legend, a source of baraka (blessedness) worthy to found the movement. For the Craft, the foundational myth is the story of Gerald Gardner’s initiation in 1939 into one of the very last surviving witch covens in England, from which he was able to transmit, to the covens that he founded, the elements of the pagan past which that coven had helped to preserve.

The evolution of Western society’s understanding of foundational myths is paralleled by the stages of individual religious maturity. The first three of these stages were identified by the poet William Blake, who labeled them “Innocence,” “Experience,” and “Organized Innocence.” The first is the stage of childhood, during which the myths of religion, learned from the parents and others, are believed implicitly.

The second is the stage of adolescence, during which the critical intellect develops, and the objective facts of ordinary history are taken as the criteria by which to judge the plausibility or possibility of the myths, which are normally rejected as being simply false during this stage, which can last into the late twenties.

The third stage is the beginnings of true maturity, in which the person realizes that the facts of ordinary history, being value-free, provide no basis for making decisions about life problems. At this stage the adult can begin to reappropriate the myths, recognizing that they are intended to be primarily statements of value, not statements of fact or of history, and recognizing also that an interpretation of the myths which is much more sophisticated than that of a child must be possible; else these myths would hardly have survived for millennia as the basis for the value systems of world civilizations. One mark of true maturity is therefore the ability to tolerate the ambiguous tension between myth and history. Another is the ability to see that the more-sophisticated understanding of myth is not possible so long as the myth is believed to be mere history. (There are further stages of religious maturity, but I’ll save that discussion for later.)

Critical analysis of the Craft’s foundational myth, and an attempt to reconstruct its ordinary history out of the available documentary and eyewitness data, are therefore tasks identical to those which scholars have carried out for all the major world religions. These religions have not then dried up and blown away—though this is precisely what their most conservative members feared might happen as the process of critical thinking got under way. I do not believe that the Craft will wither away under the impact of critical thought either; and its conservative members, in fearing that it might succumb, reveal that they do not believe deeply that the Craft can stand up as an equal in comparisons with other religions.

Now, about those indigenous religions. They actually follow the same pattern, because they are never based on the assumption that there is a “deposit of faith” from the past, some collection of scriptures or rituals or beliefs, that cannot be altered. Hence such religions are not fixed once for all. Instead they evolve steadily, from one generation to the next, and become somewhat fixed only when there is some sort of governmental onterference, as when the Athenian government turned the local fertility rituals at Eleusis into the state religion of their little empire.

In practice, the belief of many Gardnerians that the content of the Book of Shadows cannot be tampered with and can only be supplemented derives from monotheistic attitudes toward ”sacred scripture.” The attitude of a genuinely Pagan Witch, such as Victor Anderson, was very, very different.

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