This is a guest post by Eric Steinhart, Professor of Philosophy at William Paterson University.
On the basis of my reading of a few Wiccan texts, I said that Wiccans believe that their ultimate deity is the ultimate immanent creative power of being. This is an old Platonic idea. The existence of such a power of being is endorsed by a number of atheistic philosophers (like Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Crosby; probably also by Peirce and Spencer). These atheistic philosophers developed the idea of an ultimate immanent creative power of being precisely in order to oppose theism (specifically, Christian theism).
Unfortunately, many Wiccans very quickly turn this power of being into a non-existent quasi-physical energy. It will be instructive to watch this happen. Thus Thea Sabin writes: “All life is infused with energy” (2011: 42). Ok, that’s true. Then she says “most Wiccans believe that everything contains some sort of energy” (2011: 42). If she’s talking about material things, there’s little reason to object to her statement. Sabin continues: “Energy is important in Wicca. Wiccans hone their ability to feel and ‘read’ it in order to understand the cycles of nature better, to tune in to their surroundings, and to get psychic information. Wiccans also believe that they can bend and use energy to bring about change, which is what magic is all about” (2011: 43). At this point, one has every right to suspect that Sabin is making false statements about human animals.
And Sabin quickly does make false statements about human animals: “Wiccans who become adept at feeling energy in inanimate objects often try their hands at psychometry. Psychometry is the ability to touch something and get information about its past from its vibration; for example, picking up an old photograph and learning something about the people pictured” (2011: 46). It is false that any human animal has the type of ability described by Sabin. Sabin continues by making false statements about natural objects: “crystals are natural batteries, so their energy tends to be easy to feel” (2011: 45). It is not true that crystals are natural batteries for any kind of energy. Of course, one has to be careful: some crystals are sensitive to electro-magnetic radiation, and were used in early radio receivers. But that does not seem to be what Sabin is talking about.
One could go on and on, pointing to falsehood after falsehood about energy in Sabin’s book (especially Chapter 3). Sabin’s claims deserve to be challenged – and skeptics should spend more effort challenging the claims of Wicca. When it comes to claims about human performance (e.g. psychometry), the challenge is clear: prove it. Notice that I say that skeptics should spend more effort in challenging the claims of Wicca. I did not say atheists. Sabin has not made any claim about any theistic deity. She has said nothing about the existence of a transcendental personal God that intervenes in the universe. In fact, she denies the existence of any such God (see her Chapters 1 & 2). Of course, many people are atheists because they are skeptics. But skepticism and atheism are distinct. To see this, consider that many Christian theists would be skeptical about Sabin’s claims.
Mostly Sabin is just guilty of very sloppy reasoning and of making things up that she wishes were true. If a rationalist is somebody who is committed to good reasoning, then it is imperative for every rationalist to criticize Sabin and Wiccans like her. By criticism, I do not mean mockery or ridicule or insult. It is easy to go through Sabin’s text, and other Wiccan texts, pointing out the sloppiness and the falsity. However, as a strategy for dealing with Wicca, or with any other religion, it is shallow. Atheists are often amazed by the resistance of spiritual nonsense to skeptical debunking. Sabin and other Wiccans (as well as many Christians) have some powerful defense mechanisms against such debunking, which is why it rarely has much success in changing their views. You’re probably familiar with them: science can’t explain everything, etc., etc.
I prefer a deeper strategy, which in philosophy is known as internal criticism. The idea is that you find a contradiction within your opponents own belief system. Sabin says that Wicca is a “nature-based religion” (2011: 1). So, if it really is nature-based, then it is contradictory for Sabin (or other Wiccans) to present a theory of nature that so deeply inconsistent with natural science. Remarkably, Sabin writes that “Wicca is an experiential religion. . . . You learn Wicca by living it. Your experience tells you what is true, what works for you, and what you believe. We walk this path somewhat like scientists, testing things out and shifting our beliefs according to the outcomes” (2011: 13). So, if Wicca really does demand empirical testing, then it is contradictory for Sabin (or other Wiccans) to make claims that are obviously empirically false.
Skeptics and rationalists ought to put pressure on Sabin and other Wiccans to naturalize their beliefs. Wiccan texts are full of woo and just plain sloppy thinking. But what I find most strange is that they are often also full of naturalistic self-interpretations. Many Wiccan books are two-sided, and it will be helpful to illustrate the sides:
On the one hand, astral travel really is the movement of your soul on the astral plane in which you meet spirits; on the other hand, astral travel is merely a psychological exercise designed to increase your self-awareness. On the one hand, magick really does have objectively measurable effects in the external world; on the other hand, magick is just a system of psychological exercises designed to help you increase your own power (and, as such, it is a system that you should tune using empirical study). On the one hand, the god and goddess are real spiritual persons; on the other hand, they are merely symbols that help you to experience your own biological connection to nature. On the one hand, the Wheel of the Year is the story of the god and goddess; on the other hand, the Wheel merely reflects natural cycles and affirms observable regularities in nature.
It is precisely because Wicca has the other hand that I have suggested that it can very easily become naturalized and de-mythologized. If skeptics and rationalists do apply cognitive pressure, some but not all Wiccans will work to rid Wicca of the woo. It is easy to imagine a woo-free version of Wicca (I’ve called it atheistic Wicca). It is very hard to imagine a woo-free version of Christianity. Christianity does not have the other hand. Or, rather, in its other hand it holds – the Bible. Attempts to de-mythologize or naturalize Christianity have already failed. I see no way to rid Christianity of its woo.
As long as our brain structures remain the same, religion is here to stay. The question is whether or not religion can be changed so that it becomes more rational. I think an atheistic religion would be more rational. And there is evidence that many groups and individuals in the United States are in the process of forming atheistic religions.
Reference: Sabin, T. (2011) Wicca for Beginners: Fundamentals of Philosophy and Practice. Woodbury, MI: Llewellyn Publications.
Other posts in the series so far: