Criticizing Wicca: God and Goddess

This is a guest post by Eric Steinhart, Professor of Philosophy at William Paterson University.

According to several Wiccan texts, the Wiccan ultimate deity manifests itself in two forms, the male god and the female goddess.

The first way to think about the god and goddess is realistic.  This is theological realism: the god and goddess are both real things.  They exist.  A Wiccan who thinks like this is ontologically committed to the god and the goddess.   Wiccan theological realism says that the god and goddess are spiritual persons existing in the natural universe.

This way of thinking about the god and goddess is not contrary to atheism in the most narrow sense.  Atheism, in the most narrow sense, is the denial of any theistic deity.  A theistic deity is a personal being who transcends the universe and who also acts within the universe.  The Wiccan god and goddess are personal and are typically represented as having human-like bodies.  However, they do not transcend the universe – on the contrary, they are entirely immanent.  If transcendence is an essential aspect of theism, then the god and goddess are not theistic deities.  The god and goddess are not said to be super-natural; they are said to be parts or aspects of nature.  But so what.  An atheist in the wider sense rejects all gods and goddesses, and rejects the Wiccan god and goddess.

An atheist who is committed to rationalism is bound to reject the existence of the Wiccan god and goddess.  There is no empirical justification for the thesis that there are spiritual persons existing in the natural universe.   Of course, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.  All that can be said is that there is no evidence for the existence of any spiritual people in nature.  Hence it is irrational to believe that they exist.  To affirm the existence of the god or goddess as spiritual people in nature is to make a profound cognitive mistake.  It is also to violate the Wiccan insistence on naturalness.  Here Wicca contradicts itself.  Wiccan theological realism is self-contradictory; it is absurd.

And not all the objections to Wiccan theological realism come from rationalism.  Another objection is also theological (or, perhaps better, it is atheological).  It seems clear that the god and goddess are the result of erroneous personification.   Wiccans incorrectly project human male and female forms on to natural objects (such as manhood or womanhood, which are immanent universals).  But the atheological error happens when Wiccans treat these projections as sacred, holy, or divine.  The error is the elevation of human forms to the level of divinity; it is the deification of that which should not be deified.

This erroneous deification is idolatry.  An idol is an object of perverse worship.  The perversion is based on the false projection of a higher degree of sacredness or holiness to something that has a lower degree of sacredness or holiness.  For some religious naturalists, these degrees of sacredness are based on degrees of universality.  The religious naturalism presented here recognizes the existence of a scientifically justified genus-species taxonomy of types of objects.  And it further affirms that these types are immanent universals; they are universals in nature.  So the genus-species taxonomy is a hierarchy of immanent universals, with the most generic universal at the top and the most specific at the bottom.  The levels in this taxonomic hierarchy correspond to degrees of sacredness, so that higher universals are more sacred.  Thus humanity is more sacred than manhood or womanhood; life is more sacred than humanity; and being-itself is maximally sacred.

Idolatry happens when an incorrect degree of sacredness is assigned to some immanent universal (to some natural power of being).  Every human animal does indeed have some degree of sacredness; manhood and womanhood  have higher degrees of sacredness; but humanity, animality, life, and being-itself have higher degrees.  To say something is a god or goddess seems to be to say that it has the same degree of sacredness as being-itself.  And that is an axiological perversion; it is immoral.  Worse, this perversion is based on an idol that the worshiper has made in his or her own image.   Worship of a idol whose form is human is self-worship.  It is the elevation of the self to the status of being-itself.  This is the worst type of idolatry.  It is a profound moral or axiological mistake.

An alternative to Wiccan theological realism is to treat the god and goddess merely as myths.  On this interpretation, they are merely symbols for aspects of natural creative power.  They are not objects of worship.  Cunningham reports that “some Wiccans probably wouldn’t even say that they worship the Goddess and the God.  We don’t bow down to the deities; we work with them to create a better world.” (2004: 19)

At a very high level of abstraction, Sabin characterizes the god and goddess as symbols for two aspects of natural creative power (natura naturans, being-itself as the power to be).  She says that “The God represents, among other things, power unmanifest; the spark of life.  The Goddess gives this power form” (2011: 117).  We experience these two aspects of natural creative power within our selves as will and reason.  On this interpretation, we experience the god as will and the goddess as reason.   The will is formless power while reason gives that power form; power unmanifest is formless while power manifest is formed.  All power necessarilyl manifests itself and thereby takes on form; all form necessarily seeks actualization and therefore becomes invested with power.   These ideas appear in Leibniz, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Peirce.  They are a way of building an atheistic metaphysics (which will have to be discussed elsewhere).

An untrained mind, working at a crude level of intelligence which demands that all things be personified, thinks of will and reason as people, as spirits.  But that is idolatry, which is easy enough to overcome.  More mature minds can see will and reason as entirely inhuman and impersonal aspects of natural creative power.   The will is the dynamic aspect of natural creative power while the reason is the structural aspect of that power.   The will is found in the truth of abstract axioms and the energy of physical systems, while the reason is found in the logos (the axioms of logic and mathematics, the laws of any universe).   For minds chained in Plato’s Cave, the will and reason look like people.  For more mature minds, the idolatry falls away, and the god and goddess merely symbolize these abstract aspects of natural creative power, the ontological force of being-itself.  Positivists and materialists, as well as some nominalists, will despise all this metaphysics; however, since it is non-theistic, atheists are free to agree to it (or not).  Anyone who wants their scientific naturalism to be metaphysically well-grounded is also free to agree to it (or not).

At a high level of concreteness, the god and goddess are merely aesthetic or literary forms, they are representations of an idealized man and an idealized woman, of the Eternal Feminine and the Eternal Masculine. They are merely symbols for natural forces (the Green Man or the Harvest Mother are such symbols).  They can be used to visually or poetically illustrate the ways that human animals participate in the earthly ecosystem.  They can be used to artistically display the ways that we participate, as men and women, as mammals, as animals, as organisms, and as material things, in natural existence – in being-itself.  They can be used in dramas, plays, and public festivals.   But they are not deities.

On both the highly abstract and the highly concrete interpretation, they become icons rather than idols.  Strictly speaking, a religious naturalist of the type described here can endorse the use of icons to illustrate the ways that we participate in being-itself.  Icons can be used to arouse us to do good, for humanity and for all life on earth.  But there is always a danger.  Donald Crosby advocates an atheistic religion of nature that “does not speak of God, gods, goddesses, or animating spirits of any sort, even if these terms are used metaphorically or symbolically, or are viewed as aspects, potencies, or processes of nature” (2008: 5).  The danger is that symbols and metaphors all too quickly become taken literally.  Nevertheless, on the type of religious naturalism sketched here, an atheistic nature-religion can use human and natural forms as icons, so long as their iconic role is stressed and any tendencies towards idolatry are repudiated.  Still, it’s dangerous.

 

References:

Crosby, D. (2008) Living With Ambiguity: Religious Naturalism and the Menace of Evil. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Cunningham, S. (1988) Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner.  St. Paul, MI: Llewellyn Publications.

Sabin, T. (2011) Wicca for Beginners: Fundamentals of Philosophy & Practice (For Beginners (Llewellyn’s)).  Woodbury, MI: Llewellyn Publications.

 

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.

  • jesec

    I would point out another issue that symbols and metaphors have – if we are not very careful with them, they can carry other meanings than the ones we want. While I see the benefit of having both male and female aspects of the deity over the single male deity of abrahamic traditions, I am wary of the gendered roles the two fit themselves into. Dualities like this can all too easily descend into the gender essentialism that is already prevalent in society and in traditional religion.

    My question for symbols like this would be: how welcoming is it to people who do not fit within the traditional masculine or feminine ideals? I have often seen that wicca is not the most welcoming of women who choose to avoid motherhood, or of people who would prefer to reject gender altogether.

  • http://marniemaclean.com MissMarnie

    It’s interesting. There must be some particular value some people place on being specifically Wiccan to go through the mental gymnastics necessary to justify both accepting a god/goddess as core to the religion AND saying one wants to be completely atheistic at the same time.

    I might go back to my comment from a few days ago and suggest that what we are really looking at is another whole religion. I used the analogy of deist versus christianity/judaism/islam before. There is a point where you’ve rewritten the idea of a religion so far that you should rightly assign it it’s own name. Despite its origins, Christianity is no longer compatible with Judaism. To be Christian is to hold a set of beliefs that are at odds with the beliefs of Judaism. To be a Protestant you hold beliefs that are at odds with Catholicism. The similarities are there in both cases, but there is at least one core aspects, in both examples that makes the two distinctly separate in a fundamental way.

    So then the question is, what specific value does the word “Wicca(n)” hold, that individuals value despite their fundamental differences with the Wiccan religion? Is it the risk of being separated from a like minded group? A fear of reducing the number of Wiccans even further and a sense of solidarity for people who largely share your values? I would think that regardless, both could reasonably fall under the more broad definition of “Pagan” while still delineating the difference between a belief system based in some level of magic and one based on no magic at all.

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

      You raise very good points; yet the Wiccans themselves (at least in the texts I’ve seen) permit and even encourage these non-theistic interpretations. All the Wiccan texts I’ve read stress that Wicca is a non-dogmatic religion; it involves certain core practices most of all, and a system of structural roles that you get to interpret either realistically or anti-realistically.

  • http://humanisticpaganism.com/ B. T. Newberg

    Given that your whole project seems concerned to get away from Abrahamic religion, I have a hard time fathoming why you make such use of what might be considered the most distinctive Abrahamic concept of all: idolatry. Abraham was the guy who smashed the idols, according to Old Testament myth, and that’s what supposedly distinguished the religions descending from him from others in the area. Here, you retain that Abrahamic concept in full force.

    Furthermore, you seem to make an idol of your own out of this “sacredness.” For no objective reason I can see, you take the essentially non-judgmental rational ordering of the universe from being-itself on down through varying levels of complexity, and then conflate that with subjective value statements by assigning levels of sacredness. First of all, this shows no understanding of what “sacredness” means, as if it could be doled out like points. Secondly, it’s seems to be subjective, whimsical, and unsupported by other arguments. Finally, and here’s where idolatry seems to come in, you make sacredness the measure of being-itself. Why is being-itself better than other levels of complexity? Because it’s more sacred (according to this). Sacredness is elevated above being-itself, thus making it an idol according to your own definition.

    Not only is this self-contradictory, but it becomes pernicious when you use it to criticize another religion. If you’re going to criticize the Wiccan God and Goddess, shouldn’t your criticism be based on something more objective? Why criticize one subjective value system based on another?


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