Criticizing Wicca: Levels

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

Some statements are based on evidence, while others are not.  And there is evidence for the existence of some entity if and only if the existence of that entity is asserted in a statement that is based on evidence.  To say that a statement is based on evidence is to say that it is empirically justified.  The philosopher Wesley Salmon gave a great analysis of empirical justification.  The basic idea is this: a statement is empirically justified if and only if either it reports some observation or it is the conclusion of a valid argument whose premises are empirically justified (Salmon, 1966).  The argument may be deductive or inductive, where induction includes both generalization and inference to the best explanation, as well as some other forms. Empirical justification is neither empirical verification nor falsification – we’re a long way from A. J. Ayer or Karl Popper.  Statements that are empirically justified are scientific, and entities that are empirically justified belong within scientific ontology.

To say that there is evidence for some entity does not imply that the entity is observable or that it can be detected with scientific instruments, or that it causes some effect in us.  On the contrary, the criterion of empirical justification given by Salmon is open to all sorts of unobservable and causally inert objects.  And that’s appropriate, since many types of objects mentioned in scientific theories are unobservable and causally inert.  These objects include universals (properties and relations) and mathematical objects.  Arguments that provide evidence for universals can be found in David Armstrong’s Universals and in Michael Loux’s wonderful book, Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction.

To justify mathematical objects, consider the Indispensability Argument.  It’s discussed in a technical but brilliant book by Mark Colyvan, The Indispensability of Mathematics.  There are lots of versions of this argument.  Here’s one:  (1) our best science is empirically justified; (2) if our best science presupposes some theory, then that presupposed theory is also empirically justified; (3) therefore, any theory presupposed by science is empirically justified; (4) but many mathematical theories are presupposed by our best science – if mathematics were false, the science would be false; (5) consequently, those mathematical theories are empirically justified.  Of course, they are neither empirically verified nor empirically falsified.  Anyway, mathematical theories (like number theory or set theory) declare that mathematical objects exist.  They contain statements like: for every number n, there exists a successor number n+1; or for every set x, there exists a set y such that y is the power set of x.   So the existence of mathematical objects is empirically justified.  Nevertheless, mathematical objects like numbers and sets are not observable.

To be sure, to say that there is an argument that provides evidence for something does not imply that the thing exists.  It only means that the existence of the thing is empirically justified, or that there is evidence for the thing.  Since the design and cosmological arguments are based on empirical premises, they provide evidence for the deity of natural theology (which is not the Christian God); but it does not follow that such a deity exists.  Empirical justification does not guarantee existence.

However, if there is no empirical justification for the existence of some entity, then it is reasonable to think that it does not exist.  This is one of the principles of rational thought: it is reasonable to believe in the existence of some entity insofar as and only insofar as there is evidence for that entity.  And this is where Wicca gets into deep trouble.

Silver Elder writes that “The original Pagan vision of the Cosmos . . . is that of the Three Worlds: The Underworld, the Middleworld, and the Otherworld or Overworld” (2011: 33). From pages 33 through 50, she describes these Three Worlds and the things in them.   And Thea Sabin writes about “the other world, the spirit realm” (2011: 78).

The Middleworld is “the material realm of all living beings” (2011: 33).  The existence of the Middleworld and its contents is empirically justified, both by direct observation and by scientific inference.   She now explains that the Overworld is composed of four planes: the Physical Material Plane; the Astral Plane; the Mental Plane; and the Spiritual Plane (2011: 46-47).  The theory of planes is also found in the Farrars (1981: 117).  They say the planes are physical; etheric; astral; mental; and spiritual.  Of course, any philosopher will recognize these planes as degraded Neoplatonic cosmology.

The obvious problem for Wiccans is that there is no evidence for the existence of things like the Underworld or Overworld.    And there is no evidence for the existence of the planes beyond the material plane.  These worlds lie outside of the domain of scientific ontology.  There is no reason for any sane or sober person to believe that they exist at all.  They are mere fictions, inventions of confused and wishful thinking.  And these worlds contain many fictional entities.  Silver Elder tells us that the Astral Plane is “where most of the Spiritual entities abide, e.g.: The Nature Spirits . . . the Akashic Records” (2011: 46-47).  There is no evidence for the existence of any of these things; they are all mere fictions.   Wiccan texts are filled with fictions; they are saturated with mythology.

Any object whose existence is empirically justified is a natural object; and any object whose existence is not empirically justified is a supernatural object.  It is rational to say that all supernatural objects are mere fictions – they do not exist.  Michael York, the author of Pagan Theology, writes “I believe in the supernatural, but I cannot demonstrate its existence.  It is, by definition, beyond the empirical dimension of factual truths.” (2003: 1).  And obviously the Farrars, Thea Sabin, and Silver Elder believe in the supernatural too.  Belief in the supernatural is common among Wiccans and neo-pagans.

And yet neo-paganism (and Wicca) contains an imperative to oppose supernaturalism.  Silver Elder writes “We are made by Nature to live by Nature’s Laws” (2011: 8).  She writes that Wicca encourages “Living in harmony with Nature . . . Living in balance with Nature . . . Living in tune with Nature” (2011: 9).  Such living is rational.  Reason, which expresses itself practically in the scientific method, is the one and only power that puts our lives and bodies in harmony or tune with nature.  Supernaturalism violently throws our lives and bodies out of harmony and out of tune with nature.  A person whose life is in tune with nature is a person whose life runs by rational principles alone.

Although Michael York writes that he believes in the supernatural, he also writes that “Paganism is largely a dialog of affirmation that reflects or develops from the rhythms and cycles of the natural world.  It does not seek to escape or obliterate the great round of nature but to work within it and to celebrate it.” (2003: 167)   This is further evidence that neo-paganism contains within itself an imperative to destroy all supernaturalism.

Since this same imperative is repeated over and over in Wiccan texts, it follows that Wicca contains an imperative to de-mythologize itself.  It does not appear that theistic religions like Christianity contain any analogous imperative.  On the contrary, they are committed to their ancient sacred texts, which they cannot de-mythologize.  Because of this internal imperative to destroy all supernaturalism, Wicca may serve as the basis for an rational atheistic nature-religion.  It is up to Wiccans whether they want to be rational or not.

See below the fold for a bibliography and for links to more posts on metaphysics, naturalism, religion, atheism, Wicca, and the relationships between them.

References:

Armstrong, D. (1989) Universals.  Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Colyvan, M. (2001) The Indispensability of Mathematics.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Farrar, J. & Farrar, S. (1981) A Witches Bible.  Blaine, WA: Phoenix Publishing.

Loux, M. J. (2006) Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction. Third Edition.  New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-26107-4.

Sabin, T. (2011) Wicca for Beginners: Fundamentals of Philosophy and Practice.  Woodbury, MI: Llewellyn Publications.

Salmon, W. C. (1966) Verifiablity and logic.  In M. L. Diamond & T. V. Litzenburg (Eds.) (1975) The Logic of God: Theology and Verification.  Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 456-479.

Silver Elder (2011) Wiccan Celebrations: Inspiration for Living by Nature’s Cycle.  Winchester, UK: Moon Books.

York, M. (2003) Pagan Theology.  New York: New York University Press.

Other posts in this series:

Atheism and Wicca

The Wiccan Deity

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

Criticizing Wicca: Energy

Atheism and Beauty

Do Atheists Worship Truth?

Some Naturalistic Ontology

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.

  • urmensch

    Great article. On my way to atheism I stopped off at paganism as I found the affirmation of nature (of course I would have capitalised it then) and life so attractive. Though I thought in order not to be closed-minded I had to allow for the possibility there was a supernatural aspect to life, eventually I couldn’t reconcile myself to all the supernatural ideas.
    Being surrounded by such flaky people was the greatest push to wake up.
    A good grounding in philosophy would have been really helpful to clear the brainfog.

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

      Thanks! I’d love to hear from more people like yourself. If you know any current or ex-Wiccans, it would be fantastic if you could point them to this series. And I’ll be doing more in the coming days and weeks.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=21301491 melissameverden

      I had a very similar experience. There are so many things about paganism I liked but the woo really helped me realize I am a through-and-through naturalist. In a lot of ways it was a great “stopping off” point for me because I learned a lot about myself and my beliefs.

  • http://slatslatslats.blogspot.com Erika

    The Underworld, the Middleworld and the Otherworld.. Wicca and Paganism in general is quite romantic this way. In my eyes, these different “worlds” are representations of the phases of our beings. The Underworld represent our remains, perhaps rotting away in our buried coffins and eventually turning into earth in one way or another (what happens ultimately, do we turn into stardust in a nebula?), the Middleworld represents our living, and the Otherworld is perhaps the part of our mind we are currently unconscious of, or perhaps our deep sense of morals and ethics, spirituality, and so on. I personally feel no need for stories like these to be a part of my belief system, while I do identify as a wiccan. Nor do I really understand the purpose of it.

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

    I don’t see how the conclusion logically follows from the quote:

    >Although Michael York writes that he believes in the supernatural, he also writes that “Paganism is largely a dialog of affirmation that reflects or develops from the rhythms and cycles of the natural world. It does not seek to escape or obliterate the great round of nature but to work within it and to celebrate it.” (2003: 167) This is further evidence that neo-paganism contains within itself an imperative to destroy all supernaturalism.

    Affirming the natural world does not in any way shape or form imply an imperative to the destruction of the supernatural. Both can be simultaneously affirmed, as many Pagans do (I am not one of them). There’s even a theological term for it: panentheism.

    As for the supernatural-natural tension, Pagans have a complicated stance on that issue. I’ve attempted to clear up the confusion with the following article:
    “Are the Gods Natural?” http://www.witchvox.com/va/dt_va.html?a=usmn&c=words&id=14742

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

      Great to hear from you, BTNewberg!

      If paganism “does not seek to escape or obliterate the great round of nature but to work within it”, then it’s pretty hard to include anything super-natural within “the great round of nature” and to have anything super-natural “within” nature.

      I know there are some efforts to link paganism with panentheism, but that just seems plain wrong to me. Panentheism is basically still Abrahamic. Process naturalism can be used by pagans.

      I hope you’ll keep reading the series, and I’ll check out your article.

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

      >I know there are some efforts to link paganism with panentheism, but that just seems plain wrong to me. Panentheism is basically still Abrahamic. Process naturalism can be used by pagans.

      Maybe it seems wrong, but remember that Pagan theology is not a rationally-designed system. It has evolved organically from a community. And it remains non-dogmatic, meaning there are no hard and fast premises from which to reason. Pagan theology, if such a thing can really be said to exist, is more of a probabilistic enterprise. That is to say, there is only a certain probability that any given Pagan will believe idea x. So it is really not anyone’s place to say Pagans are not x because it’s not consistent with Pagan idea y.

      But even in probabilistic terms, as a Pagan insider I can say with high confidence that the probability of any given Pagan being panentheistic is pretty darn high, higher than any other kind of theological stance in my experience.

      >If paganism “does not seek to escape or obliterate the great round of nature but to work within it”, then it’s pretty hard to include anything super-natural within “the great round of nature” and to have anything super-natural “within” nature.

      Correct that “supernatural” cannot fit within nature, but that does not logically imply the destruction of the supernatural. Again, I hope the article may help clear up the confusion. :-)

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

      Granted I can’t tell pagans (or anybody else) what to do, so if paganism wants to turn itself into a variant of Christianity, then I guess that’s what it will do. I’ve seen a few texts on paganism and panentheism; I was mostly impressed by the misunderstandings of panentheism. Seriously, if pagans want to worship the Abrahamic God, dressed up in process theology clothing, well then, what’s the point? Philosophically at least, paganism is attractive precisely insofar as it’s non-Abrahamic. If it becomes Abrahamic, well then, we already know how to do that kind of theology, and paganism itself would have failed to be an alternative.

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

    >if paganism wants to turn itself into a variant of Christianity, then I guess that’s what it will do.

    Wait… what?!

    Maybe I should explain how I understand panentheism. As I learned, it is a view of deity that contains both an immanent and a transcendent element. That understanding is consistent with wikipedia (not that wikipedia is a great authority, but…): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panentheism

    Most forms of Paganism, including Wicca, view the gods as immanent in nature, and emphasize that part more than many other religions, but they also view the gods as transcending what is empirically sensible and participating in some mystical reality beyond what science can currently discover. Starhawk, for example, has been judged panentheist in the view of J. W. Cooper in his book “Panentheism” (2006).

    There are many religions that are panentheistic, not just Abrahamic ones. So I am not sure what you mean by Paganism turning itself into a variant of Christianity. I don’t see the connection.

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

      Either the deities are immanent, or they’re not – it’s pretty strange to say something is both immanent and not immanent (that is, transcendent).

      And the sort of transcendence found in panentheism doesn’t correspond at all to the notion of going beyond what is empirically accessible.

      Cooper is right that Starhawk is panentheist; but, more to the point, her theology is pretty much just Christianity with the male replaced by the female. Starhawk is totally Abrahamic, her theology contains nothing new at all — merely the obvious replacement of God the Father with a copy-cat God the Mother. I’d rather not go back to Christian Sunday School; replacing the God with a Goddess doesn’t change the structural relations at all. The system is preserved.

      The danger for paganism, being a small and new movement, is that once it opens itself up to a Christian interpretation, the tendency will become to interpret it that way. The floodgates will open, and (this has happened many times) a promising alternative to Abrahamic religion in the west will get overwhelmed. There are already Christian-Wicca books. Get ready for more. The Green Sisters movement among the Catholics is ready to digest Wicca whole.

      If there’s anything that’s theologically (and philosophically) new and valuable in paganism today, it’s a total rejection of theological transcendence in favor of a conception of the divine as wholly immanent in nature. Open that door to theistic transcendence just a wee bit, and you can count on paganism being absorbed into the greater theistic religious culture.

      Btw, I read your article, which is very nicely done — I’d encourage you to look at the posts on the Wiccan god and goddess in this series. I try to argue that a good way to interpret them naturalistically is to think of the god as symbolizing will and the goddess symbolizing reason, both taken to be inherently natural forces.

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

    >Either the deities are immanent, or they’re not – it’s pretty strange to say something is both immanent and not immanent (that is, transcendent).

    Okay. But that is exactly what tends to be claimed. Strange or not.

    >Starhawk is totally Abrahamic, her theology contains nothing new at all — merely the obvious replacement of God the Father with a copy-cat God the Mother.

    I get the strong impression that the nuances of Starhawk, not to mention those of the vast complex thing that is Paganism, are not being grasped. When you demonize something, in this case Christianity, it is very easy to see it everywhere. This is unfortunate, because Paganism has some radical new contributions to make to Western spirituality. For example, the emphasis on practice over belief, in a context of non-dogma, is a game-changer, and radically transform the religious landscape if it spread on a large scale.

    >If there’s anything that’s theologically (and philosophically) new and valuable in paganism today, it’s a total rejection of theological transcendence in favor of a conception of the divine as wholly immanent in nature.

    It sounds like what you’re seeing in Paganism is what I thought I saw when I first became Pagan. I thought I was entering a wholly-immanent religion, and it took many years to realize that was not necessarily the case. The wholly-immanent interpretations are actually in the minority, and aren’t usually separate traditions but rather the views of individuals within larger traditions. The fact that some can interpret the divine as wholly-immanent while others interpret it differently (even in the same group and at the same ritual) is a remarkable feature, part of the emphasis on practice over belief mentioned earlier. What one believes is not held to be terribly important; rather how one practices is ultimately of the greatest importance. In this view, if your practice “works”, then it’s valid. How you explain how it works is more a matter of guesswork that is always open to revision. Perhaps this comes from the influence of magic, where the object is to get “results” one way or another, and working out the theory behind it is secondary. It may also be influenced by participatory democracy. The view is somewhat similar, in a loose analogy, to the democratic process where all are encouraged to vote, even if they vote for a different candidate than you. Belief in democracy as a process is more important than belief in party doctrine. Pagan belief in the process of ritual is similar.

    Does all that make sense? I think it’s one reason why all this emphasis put on immanence vs. transcendence sits oddly with Paganism, and just doesn’t describe it very well. It’s just not a dogmatic religion that ever decides one way or another. Call that misty or muddle-headed and I won’t argue, but there you have it.

    >The floodgates will open

    Sorry to break it to you, but the floodgates are already open, and were so from the start. However, the good news is that one of the many currents in that flood has been naturalism. A few are starting to band together and be more conscious and vocal about their naturalism. The Naturalistic Paganism yahoo group is one place where we’re coming together, and the Humanistic Paganism blog is another. After starting out expecting naturalism in Paganism and finding much of it otherwise, I was lucky to find the NP group, and started HP to further explore the amplify the naturalistic voice.

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

      Oops. That last line should be “further amplify the naturalistic voice.”

      I think you may be more interested in Naturalistic Pantheism than Paganism as such. I would recommend the World Pantheist Movement and the Universal Pantheist Society, each of which websites with nings. The former has a fairly large population, perhaps the largest of all spiritual naturalist organizations.

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

      BT, it’s not my intention to demonize anything, Christianity included. I merely point out that Starhawk’s theology (at least in The Spiral Dance is pretty much just Judeo-Christian monotheism with God the Mother in place of God the Father.

      Paganism is interesting because it provides some ritual and ceremonial practices that may be of use to religious naturalists. And indeed the very openness and democratic tendencies of paganism imply that an atheistic (or naturalistic or humanistic) paganism is a real possibility.

      Paganism doesn’t have to be theistic; nor do all pagans have to follow the well-trodden conceptual paths of Christianity (of which panentheism is one). I’m interested in Western religious alternatives to theism. Paganism permits the development of those alternatives. It can supply some content to an atheistic nature-religion.

      For instance, consider the Wheel of the Year — atheists can celebrate those holidays in their own ways, without reference to gods or goddesses. They can be seen as naturalistic holidays, for the celebration of natural cycles.

      So, this blog series is about the content that naturalists can take from pagan practice. I’d love to hear what you think about the other posts in the series.


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