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.

  • Dave Burwasser

    I read your evolutionary essay in Hippie Commie etc the book-on-discs. I still like it.

  • Apuleius Platonicus

    Religions don’t begin, nor do they end. But they do constantly change.

    • Maeve Kelly

      All of creation has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
      So does comedy.
      The only thing that is constant is the priniciple of energy and matter; E=MC2. Religion, is a construct, just like your imagination Mr. Platonicus.
      Maybe the question you need to explore is “how does creativity work?” and “how does it work for me?”
      If you can define that variable, maybe then maybe, you can add any number of things to create  your own construct and call it your own. a.k.a your own religion and/or spiritual belief.
      And if you want to step into that arena, how is Nova Roma doing these days?
      Still quoting Brain, from “Pinky and the Brain?”
      Pinky: “Gee Brian, what do you want to do tonight? NARF!”
      Brain: “Why Pinky, I want to do what I want to do every night…CONQUER THE WORLD!”

      Otherwise, your just a goon, Mr Platonicus. Just a goon.

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    Very excellent post!  I shall link to it when I write one in the coming days on my own blog which will be celebrating the 10th anniversary of my current devotional involvement with Antinous.  Thanks very much for your continued excellent work!

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  • John W. Morehead

    I appreciate your thoughts. It is indeed helpful, particularly for Western Christians now in the majority, to remember that they were once considered a cult, a new and dangerous religious movement focused around the cult of personality which allegedly encouraged cannibalism and atheism. If nothing else, this should remind us of the need for broader historical perspective, and caution in the connection of our religion and culture to power.

    • Apuleius Platonicus

      When Christianity came along there were hundreds of different cults in the Roman world, and tolerance and respect was the general rule. Why was an exception made in the case of Christianity? Because the Christians, unlike other cults, went out of their way to denigrate the religions of their neighbors.

      Modern Pagans have nothing positive to learn from early Christians, with whom we have absolutely nothing in common.

      • aidanakelly

         I recommend you take some basic courses in religious studies. I suspect you might be too closedminded to learn anything, however.

        • Apuleius Platonicus

          I recommend that you avail yourself of the writings of the historians J.B. Bury and Ramsay MacMullen on the subject of the tolerant nature of Greco-Roman polytheism and how this contrasted so sharply with the intolerance of early Christianity. Then there is the work of the scholar of religion Jan Assmann on the subject of the intrinsically intolerant nature of monotheism. Also see Charles Freeman, Perez Zagorin, Michael Gaddis, and R.I. Moore. And one must also mention the great Enlightenment writers on the subject: Voltaire, Hume and Gibbon.

  • Hinskm

    All belief systems will label those that differ with them as a cult.  In the beginning, Christianity was called a cult by the pagans.  This writer twists history to prove his points just as the Muslims, and others do.  There is only one safe belief system that we as Americans can have: that is the belief that every one has the Right to search out their own salvation in Freedom.  If your belief system does not include Salvation, then it probaby includes Immortality in some form. If you do not believe in ONE God, then why do you need to believe in any gods?

  • Henry

    “The Craft was founded as a distinct religion in the 1930s.”
    Gardners’ version of the craft was founded as a distinct religion. As  much squawking as I hear about academic rigour, it’d be nice if some rigour was applied to terms. “The Craft” is rather nebulous and includes many more approaches than  the one instituted by Gardner.
    Same with ‘The foundation myth”, Gardner’s story is not the foundational myth of the craft I practice, so it is just a foundational myth for those who practice the religion instituted by Gardner.
    Governmental influence isn’t the only stress which fixes dogma, social, political and academic influences also serve to fix it. Right now it seems the academic influences are the dogma setters. 

    • Apuleius Platonicus

      As far as “academic rigour” goes, no one can produce one shred of evidence that Gerald Gardner ever made any “specific historical claim” with regard to the Witch Cult. In fact, if one actually bothers to read what Gardner published he was extremely cautious about making any historical claims whatsoever. And yet this does not prevent scholarly pretenders, with Ronald Hutton first among them, from repeating ad nauseum that “Modern pagan witchcraft had, after all, appeared as a movement with a very specific historical claim.” [quoted from "Triumph of the Moon"]

      • Kelly_aidan

        Hutton a scholarly pretender? That’s an obnoxious and thoroughly ignorant staement. Knock it off.

        • Apuleius Platonicus

          It was made with direct reference to a very specific claim made by Hutton that is central to his work. Do you wish to defend Hutton’s claim that “Modern pagan witchcraft had, after all, appeared as a movement with a very specific historical claim.” I am all ears. If, however, all you can do is criticize my poor table manners, well then that tells me all I need to know.

          • aidanakelly

             Yes, Hutton’s statement is quite historically correct. If you were paying tuition, I might be willing to teach you a course on historical research. But you’re not, and I’m not. I was criticizing your ignorance, not your manners. Don’t skate on thin ice.

          • Apuleius Platonicus

            I did not make a bald statement about the correctness or incorrectness of Hutton’s claim.

            My claim has to do with evidence, or, more precisely, the lack thereof. There is no evidence, none whatsoever, to support Hutton’s statement. Hutton himself never bothers to even pretend to present any such evidence. Never once has he or anyone else ever stated clearly and plainly:

            1. What is the “very specific historical claim” in question?
            2. Who made this claim? When? What are the sources?
            3. What is the basis for claiming that the statements adduced in #2 above (if any such can every be adduced) really do in fact comprise a foundational “doctrine” of Wicca, or any other form of modern Paganism?

            I do not expect that these questions will be answered. In fact I am absolutely certain that they will not be answered.

            I know this because I have actually read Gerald Gardner’s published writings, and he is consistently cautious when it comes to “specific historical claims”.

          • Maeve Kelly

            You are a goon Mr. Platonicus. Plain and simple. Just a goon. A simple headed Nova Roma goon. Up to no good for just “shits and giggles.” Well played. But you’re still a goon.

            If you are not sure what a goon is please follow the provided link, thank you.

          • aidanakelly

             I’m afraid my daughter has never been overly polite to what she perceives as unfair criticism of me. And I’ve never tried to cure her of that. I know she loves me.

          • Apuleius Platonicus

            Loyalty is one of the most admirable of all human qualities.

          • aidanakelly

             Thank you, Apuleius. Now you have said something sensible. And I did not think you were being personal, just asking for more than I have any good reason to deliver.

          • Apuleius Platonicus

            Maeve, I am quite certain that your father is well deserving of your love and loyalty. Any disagreement I might have with him is in no way personal.

      • Henry

        heh, well I wouldn’t consider Hutton a ‘pretender’, as I am sure he earned his letters. But the phraseology illustrates the point I was making.
        “the Witch Cult”, – there was no singular, specific witch cult/religion, though folks keep trying to make one, first the Church, then Murray and now contemporary scholars.
        ‘Modern Pagan Witchcraft’ really means Gardner inspired witch craft, or more specificly ‘Wicca’.(yes, I am of the school that the term “wicca” should apply to Gardner inspired craft)
        There’s sloppy terminology all way round. In the words of Gurdjeff, ‘For exact study, exact language is needed.’

    • aidanakelly

       Well, Henry, I don’t know about your case. Maybe you are practicing a form of the Craft totally independent of and older than Gardner. In that case, why do you think it’s a form of the same religion? But I simply don’t think it’s likely. Most people who think they are totally non-Gardnerian are just plain ignoring how much of their praxis derives from Gardner’s innovations.

      I realize you may not be able to explain any details of all that in a public forum. I understand. But I also have to doubt your story, given the probabilities. We could communicate offline; that might be easier.

      • Henry

        “In that case, why do you think it’s a form of the same religion? ”

        I can’t say I see where you think I am saying anything about ‘same religion’.

        I don’t know what ‘story’ of mine that you doubt?
        Unless my saying, what you term ‘the foundation myth’, this historical one you pose, has nothing to do with the foundation myths I was taught, was the story you refer to.
        It’s your perogative to doubt.
        heh, well I am ‘totally non Gardnerian’,as I am not of any of those lines, so why would my “praxis” be influenced or derived from Gardner? It doesn’t mean I am ignorant of his work. How else would I know that those practices  and mine are different?

        • aidanakelly

           Honestly, Henry, I think we may be just talking past each other in all this, neither of us understanding what the other is trying to get at. Do you call what you do ” the Craft”? And seriously, if what you do bears no resemblance at all to Gardnerian Wicca, do you consider his Wicca and what you do to be different versions of an underlying broader concept of Pagan religion? Is this a problem of having to make sure we’re assuming the same definitions for some terminology?

          • Henry

            that’s the point, it’s a problem of terminology. The use of the phrase “the Craft” as synonomous with a religon founded in the 1930′s, when it seems you’re speaking about the religion founded by Gardner. It’s the use of a broader umbrella term “The Craft” being applied to a specific order of craft, Gardnerian Wicca.
            By my saying my practices were different doesn’t say there’s no resemblance at all.  Just be cause there may be some similarities, doesn’t imply derivation from one to the other, but is attributable to having a similar source. Gardner didn’t have a lock on ‘occult and magical practices after all.
            When I first began instruction in the craft, i.e. the broader sense ‘witchcraft’,(mid 70′s) I was taught practice, herb craft, spell craft, etc. and a simple theology , that everything has a ‘spirit’ and some degree of intelligence and consciousness, that everything is alive, and are beings.” In relation to that I was also instructed in methods for connecting to those spirits/beings.
            The primary thrust of that instruction were genius loci.  As far as any over arching theogony or cosmogony, well, that was left to me to choose whatever ‘religious’ framework I wished to work in.
            In answer to whether or not I view Gardnerian Wicca and my own practice part of a broader concept of ‘Pagan Religion, well no there is no “Pagan religion” there are Pagan religions-note singular v. plural. In that case, yes I would say both fit into the catagory of Pagan religions(plural), with the caveat that witch craft isn’t a religion, but a magical practice.It doesn’t depend on a set theology, except the basic one I mentioned above. How could they not being based on a continuance of ancient thought and practices?

          • Maeve Kelly

            Hi there Henry. I want to thank you for a lively discussion based on “odd pretenses” both you and my father have been discussing. Fabulous.

            However, I see major flaws in your arguement. I see a flaw in how you define your bases or non-bases of how you related your faith to that of being/not being related to Gardnerian/British Traditionalist practices as we have them today.

            If you wouldn’t mind, please review some of the questions I’ve posted below. These are questions to help me understand the terms you have used and how you define them. Please take no offense to these questions, because they are only a handful to help me assimulate your thoughts, ideas, and base understandings on these matters.

            However, if you find these questions I’ve posted to be insulting, please forgive my ignorant self, since I’ve only been in the craft movement since I was a babe in my father’s arms.

            But before I list the quetions below, I will mention that the term the ‘Craft,’ with a capital “C” is primarily used in the Masonic Lodges for fellow masons. It is perfectly understandable why there are difficulties with certain groups to call ourselves followers of the ‘Craft,’ when it means specifically a member of the Masonic Lodge.


            Questions are based on your last statement, please review the following.

            “How could they not being based on a continuance of ancient thought and practices?”

            Do you have a person or persons that told you an oral tradition that relates to your current practices and beliefs that can be proven in cross cultural context to say indigenous  people of the Americas, of European descent, or of Middle Eastern descent?

            That can be verified in a enthographic study of oral traditions?

            Meaning, is someone in your family a herectical witch?

            Or is someone a practicioner of “folk” medicines in your family?

            Or did you find your faith in a book, first and went exploring after?

            When you practice your rituals, do you use a form similar to other witches or fellow pagans?
            For example, are your rituals similar to other British Traditionalist, Native American, Eastern European, etc.

            Last question…is the base of your argument on the pretent that all religions share a similar manifestation, i.e. animism, shamanic, or some other form of “tribal” belief structure?

            Okay, to make that question more apparent, does your definition of pagan theology similar to that of the Japanese spiritual beliefs of Shinto, or to the spiritual belief construct of Native Americans (incert particular tribe here)?

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  • Guest

    This a really interesting short video about how all religion bean and why its so appealing to people, check it out.