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Criticizing Wicca: Energy

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:

Atheism and Wicca

The Wiccan Deity

The Theistic Deity and Atheism Defined

The Wiccan Deity: An Initial Philosophical Analysis

The Wiccan Deity: Related Concepts in Philosophy

On Atheistic Religion

Nine Theses on Wicca and Atheism

Atheistic Holidays

Atheism and Beauty

Do Atheists Worship Truth?

Some Naturalistic Ontology

Criticizing Wicca: Levels

Atheism and the Sacred: Natural Creative Power

Atheist Ceremonies: De-Baptism and the Cosmic Walk

Atheism and Possibility

The Impossible God of Paul Tillich

Atheism and the Sacred: Being-Itself

Pure Objective Reason

Criticizing Wicca: Rationality

The God and the Goddess

Wicca and the Problem of Evil

The Wiccan God and Goddess: Reality and Mythology

On Participation in Being-Itself

Criticizing Wicca: God and Goddess

The Increasing Prevalence of Woo

Wiccan Theology and Sexual Equality

Revelation versus Manifestation

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Cindy

    I was a wiccan for 20 years, raised a xtian. I have been a “New Atheist” for about 5 years now. I have tried many of these tactics with my old friends but the “I know what I have experienced and I have seen magic work with my own eyes” is very hard to overcome.

    When I was a wiccan I tried very hard to believe in the woo but I never could make it work for me, just like when I was a xtian I thought I just did not believe hard enough. I had been questioning for quite some time when I picked up “The God Delusion”. I guess I worked kind of the opposite of other people, they go from one god to none, I went from one to hundreds to none.

    And yes there are Atheist wiccans, my husband is one of them. :) We still celebrate the pagan holidays, but more as the agricultural wheel of the year in a way to connect to the natural cycle and our heritage. No woo allowed, good food, folk customs and farm chores.

    • Dunc

      I have tried many of these tactics with my old friends but the “I know what I have experienced and I have seen magic work with my own eyes” is very hard to overcome.

      Yeah, that’s a tricky one… I haven’t found a cast-iron way around this, but one tactic which can sometimes at least get people thinking for a bit is to draw their attention to all the times when they experience things which they already know aren’t true – stage magic and optical illusions are two good candidates. The critical thing is to try and break down the idea that one’s own experiences are a reliable guide to how the world actually works.

      I too have seen magic work with my own eyes. But, as Obi-Wan put it: “Your eyes can deceive you – don’t trust them.” ;)

  • sawells

    That “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)” is irrelevant to the question of the actual existence of any such thing. No number of philosophers of any stripe can make a “power of being” be or not be by endorsing it. Just putting down a marker there.

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

    Eric, I’m a little unclear on one thing here: given your own definitions of atheists, theists, wiccans, and skeptics, wouldn’t it be right to say that atheistic wicca is a redundancy since wicca is already an atheistic religion? Aren’t you here arguing for skeptical wicca?

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      @Dan – No, Wicca is not atheistic at this point. The ultimate deity may be atheistic, but Wiccans still seem to believe in lesser theistic deities, such as the god and the goddess, and they also seem to affirm a variety of spirits that would appear to be at least close to theistic deities.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Okay, can you clarify the relationship between polytheism and theism then? It’s a little blurry when you wrote:

      The root word “theism” has many, many, many meanings. I’ve said exactly how I’m using it, which is a pretty standard usage, at least in philosophy of religion (which distinguishes carefully between theistic and non-theistic deities).

      And it is interesting to note that the gods of older Western polytheisms like ancient Greek-Roman or Norse polytheism aren’t theistic in this philosophical sense. Look at Zeus — he’s just one of the many things in the universe. He didn’t create it and he himself is created (by his parents). He’s not transcendent or even supernatural – he’s part of nature as the Greeks understood it. He lives on a mountain top. He’s not all-powerful, all-good, or all-knowing. The same goes for the other gods and goddesses of trad Western polytheisms.

      In that place you were essentially arguing, I thought, that polytheisms are not theisms. It was a neater bifurcation—philosophical theism as the only theism and all other views were “atheism”. Rather than polytheism as a subset of theism (as I’d see it). Now you’re sounding closer to the traditional view that pagan gods make for a kind of theism.

      Can you just clarify the relationships between theism, polytheism, and atheism (and any differences between philosophical versions of all of the above as opposed to other versions—say mythological, etc.)?

    • Evan Guiney

      Not to put words in Eric’s mouth, but as I read him the terms themselves suggest a clear relationship.

      Theism is distinct from polytheism, just as Eric suggests. There does seem to be an important distinction between the idea that there are supernatural persons (roughly, polytheismim) that are still somehow part of the universe, and that there is a transcendent creator person-god (roughly, theism), that is in some sense outside of the universe.

      Atheism is the negation of any theism, whether polytheism or philosophical/mono-theism.

      So: currently wicca is polytheistic, not theistic, but that means it can’t yet be called atheist.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      The trouble I have with that, Evan, is that “within the universe” can’t really be supernatural, unless you mean operating within the universe by divinely intervening but not being a part of it or subject to its laws. In that case, how is Yahweh different than Zeus?

      If though in some way the polytheistic gods are really a part of the normal universe, then they’re not supernatural (or gods in anything like the sense of “God The Monotheistic God”), they’re just greater beings than humans. In this case, calling them gods and the philosophers’ monotheistic transcendent god both gods is a really deceptive equivocation. And in that case the Greek gods are not theistic at all—if theism requires transcendence of the universe.

  • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

    All these “theism” terms are poorly defined, mostly because they were never meant to deal with the current philosophical and religious situation!

  • sawells

    There’s a certain kind of dumb that’s only available to very smart people.

    Defining polytheism as not a form of theism… yeah, that’s on the list. A bit like defining polygamy as not a form of marriage because you want to define marriage to mean monogamy only.

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      Today a theistic deity is standardly defined in philosophy of religion as a deity that is personal, transcends the universe, yet also intervenes in the universe from outside (and is usually also its creator). None of the gods of the ancient polytheisms fit that definition. But you are correct that we need better terms. All these terms were mainly defined in a Christian context and are thus ill-suited for many current uses. However, I have been very clear in my definition of what it means to be atheistic deity.

  • grung0r

    I said that Wiccans believe that their ultimate deity is the ultimate immanent creative power of being.

    No, Eric, That isn’t what you said. What you said was:

    If I’m right that the Wiccan deity is the ultimate immanent creative power of being…

    I have bolded the differences. In the former, you are simply reporting on what Wiccans believe. In the latter, you appear to be making a statement of your own belief about reality.

    I see several possibilities for the discrepancy:

    1:It was a typo, and you simply left out the “Wiccans beleive” part. This seems unlikely though, as in the comments several people challenged you on it, and you never fixed it or walked it back.

    2:You where being deliberately provocative to drum up comments or traffic. Possible, but really bad form if true.

    3:You could come up with no way to conclude the latter statement without it being a non-sequitur, and thus left it deliberately vague. In it, you ask “why would atheists have a problem with that?” If you were simply reporting on what Wiccans thought with no regard to reality, then all you would be doing is asking how tolerant each atheist is towards this particular set of beliefs, and this question would not in any way relate to the previous paragraphs you had written.

    4:You think that the Wiccan deity is “ultimate immanent creative power of being” and thus, there is no discrepancy. It is, after all, perfectly acceptable(Perhaps even preferable) for a Wiccan to report on what other Wiccans think, even in the third person.

    Or perhaps there is some other possibly that I don’t see. Can you clear this up?

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      I appreciate that you’re insisting that I be more precise. My goal is to try to report what Wiccans believe as accurately as I can; it will not always be the case that I mark it as such, simply because I am sometimes pressed for time, or I make mistakes. Thank you for keeping me honest! I will stress again that I am not a Wiccan, neither explicitly nor secretly.

      But let me also be clear that if Wiccans have a view that I agree with, I will affirm that view. For instance, Wiccans stress gender equality in their religion; I agree with gender equality, thus I will praise them for including that idea in their religion, and on that point, they and I will speak with the same voice.

      As for the ultimate immanent creative power of being (natura naturans), Wiccans, many atheists, and myself have no problem affirming its existence. Future posts will provide some arguments. You may object that the creative power is too metaphysical for your taste; fine, but that is not an atheistic objection, it is a positivistic objection.

      The issue is what follows from affirming natura naturans. For Wiccans, much follows, including much that is objectionable from a scientific point of view; for me, only what is part of scientific ontology follows.

    • grung0r

      So, just to be clear, you were in fact professing a belief in the ultimate immanent creative power of being and your lack of precision was just in attaching the “wiccan” label(a label that’s attached to assertions you don’t believe) to it when you did so. Correct? If so, I remain confused about one thing: Why didn’t you clarify this until now? I accused you of being a Wiccan in a prior thread based on this very statement, and you responded but failed to note that your statement was in error or that I had misread it. Why?

      You may object that the creative power is too metaphysical for your taste; fine, but that is not an atheistic objection, it is a positivistic objection.

      Oh, I don’t object that it’s metaphysical, I object that it’s tautological. ‘the ultimate immanent creative power of being’ is by definition true, which renders it trivial and meaningless. You’ve defined your god into existence, and now your going to draw conclusions from that existence. I know you claim this isn’t theology, but stuff like this makes it bare a hell of a lot more then a passing resemblance.

  • sawells

    Eric, you seem to be depending very heavily on natura naturans, maybe you should try to establish that first. “Leibniz said so” is not an argument.

  • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

    Nobody, neither Wiccans nor the cited atheistic philosophers, thinks that natura naturans is a god.

    • grung0r

      Really? That’s it*? I would have thought you’d be more concerned about my claim that whatever ‘it’ is is tautological then with the name of the rose. I could have called ‘it’ ‘god’, or ‘Bob’ or a ‘non-theistic deity’, or ‘the invisible red dragon of Betelgeuse 7′. The name is simply not material to whether your definition of ‘it’ includes existence.

      *assuming this was a reply to my previous post. Disregard if it was not.

  • sawells

    I’m unimpressed by Eric’s tendency to dismiss objections as “not atheistic”. The only question is whether objections are valid, not whether they are atheistic. I reject 2+2=5 because maths, not because atheism.

    At present we’re apparently all supposed to be terribly impressed because Leibniz said that all possible things strive to exist. Well no, they don’t; nonexistent things can’t strive. Invoking big names does not actually constitute an argument. Saying that atheist philosophers have entertained such and such a concept does not even show that the concept is compatible with atheism, as we know people can claim to entertain ideas that aren’t in fact consistent.

  • Nele
    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      @Nele – You’ve been keeping me honest, and that’s appreciated!

  • Red Ree

    OK, so atheists don’t believe in “energy” except perhaps as it can be measured with known instruments in a laboratory setting. But we as a society take an awful lot of science itself on faith, as it were. We all accept the validity of the elements as described in the periodic table, even though I have never seen an atom with my own eyes. Does that mean that I “believe in” the existence of atoms as expounded by a “scientific priesthood”?

    And I’m dubious about this holy mission to argue with Wiccans, or anyone else, to disprove their beliefs. Readers who believe themselves to be “committed to good reasoning” are told here that “it is imperative for every rationalist to criticize Sabin and Wiccans like her.” Really?

    I don’t agree with the worship of “reason” above all else. Sloppy thinking irks me, too, but then I wonder why everything suddenly has to be rational. Is a beautiful piece of art “rational”? Would my ability to fully rationalize that artwork increase my understanding of it, or my pleasure in beholding it? If I deconstruct a painting into its component parts (pigment, canvas etc) have I made an actual improvement? (I didn’t come up with that last analogy, Terry Pratchett did)

    Taking Reason as our new God ignores qualitative assessments in favor of quantitative ones, because they’re easier. But an exclusive and myopic focus on things that can be measured only leads to a sea of meaningless data. It cannot tell us WHY something is important. The meaning that we ascribe to something may not always have a rational basis, but that doesn’t make it less meaningful.

    Not everything that is meaningful is actually provable. In the movie “Contact”, a very hot young minister queries the brainy scientist about her rationalism by asking her, “Did you love your father?” She answers, “Yes… very much.”

    And then he says, “Prove it.”

    So, all you rationalists out there, don’t forget about the love! Call it oxytocin if you must, but I think you will enjoy life a lot more if you don’t feel the compulsion to rationalize every last thing.

  • Donald Michael Kraig

    Respectfully, this is one of the most poorly written philosophical presentations I’ve seen in decades. Yes, I understand that you are attempting to present your ideas “in ways that are both accessible to non-philosophers and yet stimulating to professional philosophers,” but to abandon logic and reason for hyperbole and misrepresentation is simply inexcusable.

    You begin by saying that you have read, “a few Wiccan texts,” although you don’t list them. In your article you only mention one very basic book, not a “few” as your introduction suggestions.

    You write, ” It is easy to go through Sabin’s text, and other Wiccan texts, pointing out the sloppiness and the falsity.” Really? even though you’ve only read a “few,” unnamed “Wiccan texts” you can say that this is true of all Wiccan texts? Most? Some? It may be true of the few you have read, but by generalizing this you have ruined your own argument.

    I note, too, that rather than actually refute any of Ms. Sabin’s work, you simply deny it. You write, “it is false that any human animal has the type of ability described by Sabin” but show no sources, no data, no proof of this denial. Respectfully, denial is not logical argument. It’s on the level of the “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” bumper sticker that was popular several years ago.

    I note too, and would take as part of your purpose here, that you consistently conflate debunking with skepticism. In fact, debunking is one of the things that sets pseudo-skeptics apart from real skeptics. Pseudo-skeptics have their own non-theistic religion that I call Scientism. This is the dogmatic belief in scientific concepts as they existed before about 1920, and the furious attempt to destroy any person or belief that dares to challenge the religion.

    I would remind you, sir, of Herbert Spencer, a philosopher of no small note, to whom is attributed the comment: “There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance — that principle is contempt prior to investigation.” Your simple denials show such contempt.

    Your main lack, however, is your seeming misunderstanding of the entire nature of Wicca. This is something you will not obtain from reading “a few Wiccan texts.” Specifically, there is no central authority nor single set of beliefs that can identify the nature of Wicca. Different traditions have different sets of beliefs. For example, while you say Ms. Sabin does not believe in a “transcendental personal God that intervenes in the universe,” you ignore the fact that other proponents of Wicca do believe in it. Some Wiccans are polytheists, some are pantheists, some are panentheists, some are agnostic. Your article falsely attempts to turn Wicca into a single, organized group, and it is not.

    Now, I can prove that, and, if you wish, I will gladly present you with a list of books that show the variety of Wiccan beliefs. You claim that your critique is not “mockery or ridicule or insult.” I respectfully propose that this is exactly the breadth of your analysis. You equate Ms. Sabin’s Wicca (which you use as a metaphor for all Wicca) as being “false” deserving of being challenged by the good guys (rationalists, so-called skeptics, debunkers, atheists, and others whom you seem to think are the essence of logic, reason, and decency), and guilty of sloppy reasoning. You say, “It is easy to go through Sabin’s text, and other Wiccan texts, pointing out the sloppiness and the falsity.” However, as I have stated, merely stating that something is false does not make it so. And yet, that is exactly the type of sloppy logic and reason you’re presenting in this article. You claim it is easy to go through “other Wiccan texts” to prove their sloppy and false reasoning, but you don’t name even one, and at the beginning you stated you only read “a few.”

    Sir, it may be due to the limited space or your attempt to appeal to your imagined fan base, but it seems that in your passionate, ersatz-religious desire to denounce any faith other than your own, you are demonstrating a clear paucity of research, reason, logic, and clear-minded philosophy.

    Should your own Scientism be critiqued? Sure. Should Wicca be critiqued? Absolutely. The same is true with any set of beliefs. Did you ever notice how everyone believes their beliefs are right and everyone else’s is wrong? Can you honestly say you’ve transcended that very human urge?

    If you really want to critique Wicca, by all means do so. You can begin by studying several dozen, if not more than a hundred books on the subject so you can actually understand it. Your approach reminds me of Russell’s Why I Am Not A Christian which is not an attack on Christianity so much as an attack on literal interpretation of the bible.

    You need to understand a subject before critiquing it. Otherwise, you’ll be like those expert scientists who said that rockets won’t work in space because there’s nothing for the exhaust to push against.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      This is one post out of a series, I encourage you to read more of the series to get a fuller understanding of Eric’s views on Wicca and the extent of his knowledge of it. The full list of entries in the series is listed above, at the end of the post. Other entries cite more of the literature he is engaging with and he several places he notes explicitly that there are no overarching authoritative texts within Wicca in his latest post: http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2011/12/30/revelation-versus-manifestation/

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      If you read my posts, you will see I’m making use of many texts besides Sabin’s.

      For the record: there are no occult entities and no occult powers; all occult doctrines are false and to present them otherwise is fraudulent.

      If there is evidence for the occult that meets the same standards as evidence for the effectiveness of our technologies (which you yourself use too), I will be happy to change my mind.

      The James Randi prize of one million dollars for proof of anything occult or paranormal is still unclaimed. Go for it.


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