This is a guest post by Eric Steinhart, Professor of Philosophy at William Paterson University.
According to the Farrars, “Witches [that is, Wiccans] are neither fools, escapist nor superstitious. They are living in the twentieth century, not the Middle Ages” (1981: 105). The Farrars write that “Many witches are scientists and technicians . . . If modern witchcraft did not have a coherent rationale, such people could only keep going by a kind of deliberate schzophrenia . . . and we have seen no signs of that” (1981: 105). They continue that “Modern witchcraft does have a rationale, and a very coherent one” (1981: 105). And finally they say that “it is incumbent on witches . . . to be truly the Wise People and show that Wicca satisfies the intellect . . . They have to demonstrate to themselves and to the world that their faith accords with reality” (1981: 106).
Sadly, the Farrars then go on through the rest of their Chapter XI of The Witch’s Way to indulge in the worst sorts of pseudo-science and woo. They talk about levels and energies and vibrations – all the expected spiritualist nonsense. Any science they mention is poorly understood and quickly perverted. They offer little more than the superstition that they say they aim to avoid in their initial quote. And most Wiccan texts are equally cognitively degenerate, shot through and through with corruptions and sicknesses of reason.
On the face of it, Wicca is highly superstitious and deeply irrational. This irrationality runs so deep that some Wiccans have recognized as a genuine threat to their religion and have begun to try to remedy it. MacMorgan is a Wiccan who distinguishes between rational Wicca and irrational Wicca. She writes: “You’ve already seen the core belief of rational Wicca discussed, the belief that no gods would expect you to believe in things that were impossible for youto believe. This core is at the heart of a greater idea, which literally scares the worst of the New Age Wiccans, that you can be Wiccan without abandoning your senses of morality, integrity, and skepticism.” (2003: 147)
MacMorgan is conversant with the skeptical literature and she urges subjecting Wiccan claims to experimental tests using the scientific method (2003: 213-220). She indicates that most of those claims will not pass those tests. She has scientific training and attempts to reconcile Wicca with science (2003: 221-239). This is evidence for my fifth thesis: as the Wiccan community grows larger, cognitive pressures will compel it to get rid of the woo and to seek greater scientific legitimacy.
The anti-rational tendencies in Wicca are easy to see. Thea Sabin writes that while Wiccans acknowledge the scientifically documented patterns in nature, they “believe that in addition to these well-documented natural phenomena, there are other, less scientifically verifiable patterns in nature and in the spiritual realms” (2011: 29). She claims that Wiccans can sense “things that science can’t explain yet, like the spirits of the dead or the presence of the gods” (2011: 29). Of course, the criticisms here are easy: Sabin is making false claims about things that don’t exist. She is, unfortunately, delusional.
Why would an apparently intelligent person endorse so much unreason? Perhaps the answer can be found in what Wiccans like Sabin say about energy and the mind. When she talks about working with “energy”, Thea Sabin recommends that you “relax, turn off your inner Mr. Spock” (2011: 43). Sabin further writes that “Trance techniques make energy work easier because they allow you to bypass the logical, skeptical, ‘Mr. Spock’ conscious mind and get access to the subconscious more easily.” (2011: 66)
Much of the irrational content presented by Sabin involves psychological techniques for the regulation of emotion. It is directed at the regulation of anxiety (such as anxiety aroused by social conflict or by future personal performance). It involves the self-management of future directed emotions such as hope and fear. It involves the regulation of biological urges associated with sexuality, with social bonding and social conflict. These emotional aspects of life are mainly handled in the brain by the limbic system.
Looking at Wicca through the lens of cognitive science, much of the irrational content of Wicca appears to involve processes for the activation or deactivation of the limbic system. It consists of techniques for the regulation of the limbic system (and perhaps also of the temporal lobes). And to regulate the limbic system, it is indeed effective to deactivate certain parts of the neocortex, to turn off your Inner Vulcan. The study of the neural substrates of religion will play a role in some later posts. For now it suffices to note that much of the irrational content of Wicca consists of practical and therapeutic content that is erroneously reified and projected into the external world.
Many writers have hypothesized that one of the most important functions of religion is the regulation of arousal in the limbic system (Saver & Rabin, 1997; Joseph, 2001; Spinella & Wain, 2006; van der Walt, 2010). Several Wiccan authors refer to Wicca as a type of shamanic practice (Cunningham, 2004: ch. 1; Sabin, 2011: 16-18). And it has been argued that shamanic practices have powerful effects on the limbic system (Winkelman, 2004). Of course, religion has other functions, and much of the neurology of religion lies outside of the limbic system. But this hypothesis (crude and limited as it is) raises an interesting question for rationalists (and thus for many atheists). The question is this: are there techniques for the regulation of limbic arousal that do not involve the types of errors found in Wicca or in other irrational religious systems?
The initial answer to this question appears to be positive. Techniques like meditation, disciplined breathing, and yoga can be done without the woo, and appear to be effective in regulating limbic arousal. Atheists have advocated developing such techniques (Harris, 2005: ch. 7; Sponville-Compte, 2006; Walter, 2010: ch. 8). One wonders how far atheists can take those techniques. What about drumming or chanting? What about worry beads or repetitive ritual activities? It may be possible for an atheistic religion to absorb a considerable amount of liturgy from other religions (including neo-pagan, Christian, and Buddhist). An optimistic rationalist holds that there are techniques that (a) can help us deal with the religious parts of our brains and (b) do not violate reason.
Some (but not all) of the other posts in this series:
Comte-Sponville, A. (2006) The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality. New York: Viking.
Farrar, J. & Farrar, S. (1981) A Witches Bible. Blaine, WA: Phoenix Publishing.
Harris, S. (2005) The End of Faith. New York: W. W. Norton.
Joseph, R. (2001) The limbic system and the soul: Evolution and the neuroanatomy of religious experience. Zygon 36 (1), 105-136.
MacMorgan, K. (2003) Wicca 333: Advanced Topics in Wiccan Belief. New York: iUniverse Inc.
Sabin, T. (2011) Wicca for Beginners: Fundamentals of Philosophy and Practice. Woodbury, MI: Llewellyn Publications.
Saver, J. & Rabin, J. (1997) The neural substrates of religious experience. Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences 9 (3), 498-510.
Spinella, M. & Wain, O. (2006) The neural substrates of moral, religious, and paranormal beliefs. The Skeptical Inquirer 30 (5), 35-38.
van der Walt, E. (2010) The limbic system and the “religious brain”.
Walter, K. (2010) Atheism: A Guide for the Perplexed. New York: Continuum.
Winkelman, M. (2004) Shamanism as the original neurotheology. Zygon 39 (1), 193-217.