Why Wicca Is a Major World Religion

Gerald Brosseau Gardner, that strange retired Englishman, created Wicca because he could not find an adequate religion elsewhere. His museum contained hundreds of pamphlets from various minority religions, and dozens of documents about his memberships, initiations, and ordinations; he had been actively searching for many years. He did not create it out of whole cloth; he used many extant materials, but the structure he and his friends gradually evolved from the late 1930s to the early 1960s was definitely something new under the sun. If he had wanted Wicca to be a tiny secret cult spread only by word of mouth, he would never have written his books. But he did write them, because he hoped Wicca would become a major religion, able to stand on its own, against Christianity or any other religion. That he succeeded marks him as a true religious genius, comparable to Joseph Smith, Jr., or Mary Baker Eddy, or many others. Yet in a way he was even greater, because what he created was not just another variation on Christianity, but an entirely different religion, one that has strengths precisely where Christianity and the other world religions are weak. True, he was a rogue, a reprobate, a rascal guru, but, as William James pointed out in the first of the Gifford Lectures that became The Varieties of Religious Experience, no one who feels obligated to obey all the ordinary rules of society could possibly ever do something as extraordinary as creating a new religion. You can now read the details of how he did it in Philip Heselton’s magnificent biography of Gardner, Father of the Witches. (This is an entirely unsolicited testimonial.)

The importance of Wicca as a new religion is probably most obvious from its current size and rate of growth. The movement has been doubling in size about every two years since Ray Buckland brought the first officially Gardnerian coven to America in the early 1960s. In 1999, according to a survey sponsored by the Covenant of the Goddess, there were about 600,000 initiated Witches in America and therefore probably about 6,000,000 practicing Pagans—and it has been growing just as fast since then. That is, this religion is clearly meeting some needs in American society that are not being met as well by other religions. Let’s look at some of the needs to which the Craft movement offers a creative response.

First and foremost is the need for sacramental experiencing of sex. In theory this is possible within Christianity, but in practice such experiencing is not available to ordinary Christians; in practice most varieties of Christianity continue to be oppressively antisexual. At best, they rate sex as harmless—as long as it takes place only under specific circumstances. The modern theologies that value sexuality as a revelation of the divine nature are taught in graduate seminaries—and then are kept more secret from the people than any “secret” in the Craft is. Andrew Greeley has been, of course, the outstanding exception to this generalization; but there is no significant chance that the administration of the Roman Catholic Church will pay any attention to him. Lady Epona said to me in 1987, “If the Roman Catholic Church were actually as Greeley describes it, there would be no need for the Craft.” (Of course, those from Protestant, Jewish, and other backgrounds have their own reasons for being attracted to the Craft.)

Second, the mainstream churches in America offer ordinary people no practical paths for personal, spiritual development; traditionally, such development was reserved for the cloistered clergy, or for elderly scholars. There was nothing for ordinary people, and that lack has not been repaired. The Western occult tradition has addressed that need, but in many ways it has been infected by the viewpoint of the Eastern religions, which are all at least mildly, and often strongly, opposed to the development of psychic or magical abilities, or at least to the use of such abilities for any purpose other than achieving (or helping others achieve) “enlightenment.” The Craft rejects such an attitude as dualism, and asserts, in contrast, that the development and use of magical and psychic abilities is spiritual development. The Craft as currently practiced in America offers, at least potentially, a balanced and practical approach to development of a person’s emotional, spiritual, intuitive, and psychic needs and abilities.

Third, the Craft’s organization, based on the principle that every coven is autonomous, gives it a flexibility and viability that huge organizations lack entirely. Like the Jewish synagogue, the coven is inherently democratic; and in many covens, the democracy is kept from degenerating into irresponsibility and anarchy by the presence of a High Priestess whose authority depends upon her magical lineage, which is independent of the coven she leads and serves, just as the Synagogue can employ a Rabbi, but cannot itself ordain a Rabbi. (The analogy breaks down here, since the Craft movement generally recognizes the right of a coven to bootstrap itself into existence and to initiate its own priests and priestesses; but the balancing of responsibility between a Council of Elders and the High Priestess is still a valid structural parallel.) That is, the coven structure empowers its members, giving them control over their own religious practices and development.

The contrast with many of the Eastern religions and with the Roman Catholic Church could not be greater. In many Eastern religions, the authority of the teacher is absolute; but Pagans tend to be extremely anti-authoritarian, and will not submit to arbitrary authority—and in the Craft (at least in most covens) they do not have to. Likewise, despite the rhetoric of the Second Vatican Council, ordinary Roman Catholics still have very little control over their church. Theologians know that Christianity is inherently democratic, and that Christians have the right to elect their own ministers, priests, bishops, and so on. The founders of what is now Protestant Christianity rediscovered this fact during the Reformation. But no one in the Craft need worry that the Roman Catholic administration will soon relinquish the authority it has usurped over the centuries.

Fourth, the Craft is generally extremely anti-dogmatic in its approach. Although Witches do believe many things, belief is not a requirement for membership or initiation. Rather, the expectation in the Craft is that if a person goes through the training and experiences that the Craft has to offer with an open mind, then personal transformations will in fact happen—and “belief” as such will be unnecessary, since the person will know that he or she has been changed. Crafters look with amazement and amusement at how New Agers generally seem devoted to swallowing entire truckloads of metaphysical horse-puckey. As a result of this attitude, Crafters are not only open to modern science, but positively biased in favor of it—and so are rather well-equipped to live in the increasingly technological civilization of the future. In contrast, most varieties of Christianity, several varieties of Judaism, and many varieties of other “world” religions try either to ignore science or to accept its results only if forced to. This sort of spiritual “laziness,” as M. Scott Peck would characterize it, merely contributes to their ever-growing obsolescence. History is littered with the carcasses of religions that failed to evolve to meet changing circumstances, and big churches are a lot like dinosaurs—whereas the Craft is much more like the hot-blooded little mammals hiding in the thickets. The Big Religions evolved the serve the needs of societies that were based on agriculture; the Craft may not be the ultimate religion that could integrate our fuel-based, global civilization, but it’s the best approximation for now.

Fifth, the Craft’s polytheistic theology suits it for the future much better than the monotheistic or monistic theologies of most other religions do. The United States, and the world in general, is becoming more pluralistic. Given the immigration trends in the USA, our former WASP majority is rapidly losing its numerical and cultural dominance. The model for our future will no longer be the emotionless WASP male; rather, there will be no one model. Male and female, white, brown, or black, Asian or European, and free to feel our own feelings: we will all have the right to be different but equal. No longer will the most socially acceptable theology be, “There is only one God, and the rest of you better shape up, or else!” Nor will it be, “There are many gods, but they are all illusions,” as many Eastern religions have taught. Rather, we will recall what the Jews knew when they were writing the Law and the Prophets: that God really is both one and many, both male and female, both father and mother, all things to all people, out of love. The respectable churches have failed to tell the people that for far too long–and so the Witches get to say, “Yes, the Gods are real, and magic is afoot.”

Sixth, and last for now, the Craft is a religion dedicated to creativity, because it is a religion that Witches are creating for themselves continually. The only way to be a true follower of Gerald Gardner, my friends, is to have the guts to create a religion for yourself that meets your own needs. I think Witches love Tolkien especially because he teaches us that creativity is divine, that the nature of godhead is to be continuously overflowing with creativity like a fountain, and that we participate most completely in the divine nature when we ourselves are being creative. I think it deliciously ironic to know that Tolkien believed all that because he was truly a Roman Catholic theologian—and because his church has disowned him, as it disowns Andrew Greeley, it is up to the Witches to carry on his work and his vision.

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  • Dave Burwasser

    I take your third point, but it is also plausible that the autonomous coven is an impediment as well. It has taken Pagans a long time to develop some robust institutions and they’re still pretty scarce on the ground.

    • aidanakelly

       You’re perfectly right, Dave. The Craft is not very mature in terms of providing the social services that faith communities all need. However, a healthy coven will serve as a support group for its members, and if it doesn’t, then people can vote with their feet, like elsewhere.

      • Dave Burwasser

        And so they do!

        But this is a sore point with me since that clown in the Bush II Admin said Pagans don’t have “good enough hearts” to do anything that could qualify for faith-based-initiative assistance. I recall a collection for the local food bank as part of the annual Cleveland Public Square public Samhain: Nothing wrong with Pagan hearts but, to have a church-basement soup kitchen, you need a church basement.

        On your fourth point, the really dangerous denial of science at the moment is climate change denial. I’m not sure if this has a religious basis, like denial of evolution, or is just an elaborate head-in-the-sand posture, but we’re all in the soup if science-based rationality doesn’t prevail.

  • http://patheos.com/blogs/confessionsofapagansoccermom/ krisbradley

    I have to respectfully ask where the number above came from?  According to the Religious Tolerance website, “The Covenant of the Goddess conducted a year-long poll of Witches and Pagans, starting 1999-JUL. They estimate that the total number of Witches and Pagans in the United States is about 768,400. ”


    • Dave Burwasser

      Everyone interested in these numbers should check out the link Kris provides. Estimates go back decades, derive from our friends and our enemies, and vary between five and eight figures (the latter a straight-line extrapolation by the Relgious Tolerance site itself, from which they quickly back off). Running through the commentary from the sources is the caution that many more people may be Pagan than are willing to supply that information to a nosy stranger on the phone.

      • aidanakelly

         Thank you, Dave. Kris, the exact numbers are not the point, since they are all estimates with large standard deviations. The point is how raodly the Craft has been growing since the early 1960s, doubling in size evety so many months, which number could range from 18 to 30, depending on the estimate of the current size. That’s faster growth than either Islam or the CJCLDS, as far as I know, and is evidence of what broad acceptance it is gaining.

        • Dave Burwasser

          If the Craft doubled every 30 months from 1960, it would have had 20 doublings by 2010. That implies a growth of a million-*fold* — a million times as many Pagans in 2010 as in 1960.

          So if there were six Witches in 1960 there’d be 6 million Witches by 2010. But if there were 300 Witches in 1960 there’s be as many Witches as Americans by now.

          I’m sure that Craft has seen extended periods of explosive growth but not that it’s been steady. 

        • http://patheos.com/blogs/confessionsofapagansoccermom/ krisbradley

          I think that if there is a claim that Wicca/Paganism is “major world religion”, the numbers must be an important point.  There’s a huge difference between several hundred thousand adherents and several million adherents.  

          The Wild Hunt talked about this subject not too long ago, and came up with numbers between 3-5 million in the entire world.


          • http://ianphanes.livejournal.com/ Ian Phanes

             Fact check:  What Jason wrote was:

            However, even if we grant that the larger estimates by friendly scholars
            and movement insiders are more accurate (and I’m hoping 2011 census
            data will bear our larger estimates out), that would still only mean
            around 3-5 million modern (ie “neo,” revivalist, and reconstructionist)
            Pagans worldwide.

            That is, 3-5M is the high end estimate.

          • Dave Burwasser

            Don’t wish to be a pest, but I will insert again an observation above: Census data depends on answering personal questions from nosy strangers, questions whose answers could have an impact on one’s standing in one’s community long after the census taker has gone.

          • http://patheos.com/blogs/confessionsofapagansoccermom/ krisbradley

            Absolutely, I agree with that statement.  However, there is a huge difference between having 5 million Pagans worldwide and having 6 million in the U.S..  That’s a lot of people who are hiding out.  

            Consider how “tuned in” Americans are to the internet, and the ability to use an alias name on Facebook. Then take a look at the Witchvox page.  Only 52,000 “likes”.  If there were 6 million US Pagans out there, wouldn’t you think at least 1% would be on facebook?

    • Levas

      Unfortunately i must inform you, in 1999 Christianity was the largest religion, in 2000 Islam surpassed Christianity. Also the CoG more then likely counted their own membership without involving things such as wiccaspace, WitchVox, black forest clan, LODPL, etc. In my personal research I found it to be 11 million pagans

  • Shawna

    Not all pagans are Wiccans

    • aidanakelly

       Didn’t say they were. Loke wise, not all Witches are Pagans. The Wiccan and Pagan movements overlap, but neither is a subset of the other.

  • KateGladstone

    How does a religion-creator determine that the religion s/he creates really _is_ meeting his/her needs, rather than simply meeting his/her whims?

    • KateGladstone

      What we need, after all, isn’t always what we _think_ we need.

      • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

         And that’s how you tell. You will know when your needs aren’t being met, even if it takes some time. At least that is my experience.

    • Dave Burwasser

      Kate, I’ve never created a religion but I came into Paganism in an unexpected epiphanal experience of the Goddess. It watered dry places in my soul that I didn’t even know I had. That’s pretty convincing that it’s meeting my needs. As Star said, the passage of time reveals their depth and seriousness.

    • Anita Hoener

       My experience – not that I am a Wiccan by any stretch of the imagination – is that as one learns more, one realises that there is STILL more to learn and the understanding that one gains in the process is such that one’s original beliefs grow and change at the same time.  That is, in a way, only logical.  When I finally woke up to the fact that Atheism didn’t add up (that is how I was brought up), I sought to find the Divine and my path took me from convential Anglican, through “born again Christian” to solitary (Christian) practitioner but when it became apparent that Christianity didn’t have all the answers I sought, it took me further to the point where, with the best will in the world, I can’t find a box that fits.  There is, to my mind, one Divine creating force but it is far too vast to fit into the confines of one Name.  It is a part of each of us and we are therefore all part of each other.  Different religions give it different names and faces but that is to try to limit the infinate – not a very sensible plan.  We each have the right and the duty to seek the Divine in our own way and we should therefore accept the right of everybody else to do the same – a much better plan, as it cuts out religious persecution, hate and intolerace.  My former Christian brethren would call me a heretic – I still regard myself as one child of the universe among many.

  • jonscrap

    How exactly did Gardner ‘create’ Wicca ?  He himself was initiated into the New Forest Coven in the 30′s. His books descibe his experiences and he is very clear that this was a ‘traditional’ and heriditary Old Religion. It was his sensationalist publications and his relative openess that grew public awareness. Remember in the UK that until 1951, the Witchcraft Act prevented anyone publishing or openly purporting to be a Witch. Gardner rode the wave of purilent newspaper exclusives and revelations to advertise his existence and promote his wares. Nor was the museum his, the museum which Gardner curated on the Isle of Man originated in the UK and was pretty much wholly owned by Cecil Williamson. Cecil had relocated the museum due to local unrest in Stratford (the original museum) to the Island and aquired the mill. Cecil employed Gardner to be the resident Witch, probably more because of his image and persuasive character than anything else. All that being said I do hold a lot of respect for Gerald and unlike many, I have read his books including his fictional works. I think though, that the old boy would have had a hearty laugh at all this guff being created in his name..

    • aidanakelly

       Hi, Jon,

      Look, I don’e want to sound snarky, but both I and Philip Heselton have done a great deal of serious research on these questions, and I don’t get the impression that you have read any of it. If you do, then we could have a more informed discussion.

  • Jstrozy

    I disagree that Tokien and Greeley have been “disowned” by the Roman Catholic Church.  Tolkein contributed scholarship to the Jerusalem Bible and Greeley has never been defrocked.

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    “Rather, we will recall what the Jews knew when they were writing the Law and the Prophets: that God really is both one and many, both male and female, both father and mother, all things to all people, out of love.”

    Isn’t that a rather monistic viewpoint, though?  If the Craft and modern polytheism generally isn’t monistic or monotheistic–which, on the whole, I’d agree with–then isn’t a statement like the one above presupposing an underlying monism despite all of the diversity?  I’d question the necessity for that, personally, but anyway…

  • http://www.facebook.com/gandalf.parker Gandalf Parker

    The problem I see with the “good hearts”  argument is that it tends to compare only to the christian version of charity. In their world it means much to give money to the church or a church run organization so that they can carry out works in the name of the church. And many of those seem to only empower people to stay in their bad situations by just giving them money or food etc etc. (and ye harm none?)

    We tend toward more empowering and personal efforts. I see fellow pagans building houses for humanity, helping with work skills programs, or running food coops, doing park or stream cleanups. There are many examples and we DO participate as individuals. But we do not seek points from our church for such actions. Since we do not go thru our church to do our charities then it is rarely a “church” project and our churches (religions) do not get recognized as participating.

    • Dave Burwasser

      Gandalf, you’re right. The point was that Bush II was channeling government funds — tax dollars — into church-basement and other types of soup kitchens and their ilk, specifically church groups too small to have husky institutional pass-arounds for public dollars like Catholic Charities or the Jewish Federation.

      Pagans clearly fall into that category, and the whole thing raised questions of breaching the Establishment Clause, so somebody asked the head of the thing if Pagans were eligible, and got that response.

      Some folks attribute the long resistance of the Veterans Admin to pentagrams on official gov’t headstones, to the impression the VA (and others) got from that exchange that Wiccans were out of favor with the Bushies.

  • Dave Burwasser

    “the Craft is a religion dedicated to creativity”

    I feel fortunate to have become Pagan at a time when prestige attached more to the ability to compose compelling liturgy and less to the lineage of one’s initiators.

  • http://twitter.com/betoquintas roberto quintas

    I would like to translate and publish in my blog.

  • Betoquintas

    this text translated into portuguese, just in case someone want to read it:

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