Hi there! I’m Eric Steinhart, helping out here at Camels With Hammers.
I’m always interested in new religious movements, especially the emergence of new types of Western religion. So I’ve been interested in watching the emergence of neo-paganism in America. America is supposed to be a Christian nation; yet, as every atheist surely knows, Christianity is declining in America. And, as Christianity declines, it’s not just atheism that’s filling the void. The void is also being filled with neo-paganism. Among neo-pagan movements, Wicca seems to be the largest and most well-defined.
Just to be clear: I’m absolutely not a Wiccan and the fact that I write about some topic doesn’t imply that I sympathize with it. I write as a philosopher, which means that I’m always highly skeptical and highly critical (I’m critical of and skeptical about atheism, too). There are lots of aspects of Wicca that are just plain offensive to reason. But even that offensiveness goes a long way to illuminating the psychological functionality of religion. And, to be clear on some other points, it’s important to distinguish Wicca and other neo-pagan movements from the New Age movements with which they are usually lumped. New Age spirituality and neo-paganism are ultimately very different types of religiousity. With all this in mind, there are several reasons why atheists ought to learn more about Wicca.
One reason is that Wicca is a religious challenge to Christianity. It is a profoundly non-Christian and non-Abrahamic religion (while at the same time being a profoundly Western religion). Here it’s essential to stress that Wicca is not Satanism (Wiccans regard Satan as a purely Christian invention). And Wicca isn’t a Christian heresy; it isn’t deviant or perverted Christianity. On the contary, it isn’t Christian at all. Fascinating!
Another reason is that Wicca has all sorts of deep conceptual roots in American culture. The Americanized version of Wicca is a kind of American nature-religion. That sort of thing has been around since the New England transcendentalists. It’s a kind of religiousity that’s always been there, lurking strangely in the background despite the best efforts of the puritans and fundamentalists to get rid of it, and now its emerging with great strength. Maybe America isn’t really a Christian nation after all.
A third reason is that Wicca may become a large-scale religion in the United States. It may be that, in two or three generations, Wicca will become a serious alternative to Christianity. I won’t lay odds on this (I’ll be long dead anyway); but it’s entirely reasonable to think that American neo-paganism, especially Wicca, will continue to grow, will become institutionalized, and will gain significant cultural power. There are Wiccans in the military and neo-pagans in public office. Wicca may well die out or become absorbed by some other religion. But even in its degenerate “fluffy bunny” forms, it’s become surprisingly popular very rapidly. Atheists so far have been fighting Christianity. Should they fight Wicca (or neo-paganism) too? If so, it will be a different fight.
But my greatest interest in studying Wicca is that it contains may aspects that are deeply atheistic. Of course, this can’t be overdone: Wicca obviously has lots of theistic aspects, and lots of just plain ridiculous aspects. And atheists have to criticize them. Still, it may be that there are elements of Wicca that will serve as the basis for a radically atheistic Western religion. There’s nothing contradictory about atheistic religion. Religion does not require belief in theistic deities (or in any deities at all). I’d say that Buddhism, Jainism, Taoism, and Confucianism are mainly atheistic Eastern religions. So far, pretty much all Western religion is theistic in one way or another. Nevertheless, Wicca has many affinities with the emerging school of religious naturalism (that said, there are serious disaffinities too). Religious naturalism is often atheistic. Here it should be noted that my own opposition to theism is primarily religious: theistic deities are personal; they are made in our image; they are idols. I’m opposed to idolatry.
My goal is to make a series of critical posts on various philosophical aspects of Wicca, especially insofar as they are relevant to atheism. Stay tuned.
Below are links to all the posts in the series.