Criticizing Wicca: Rationality

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:

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

Some Naturalistic Ontology

Criticizing Wicca: Levels

Atheism and the Sacred: Natural Creative Power

Atheism and Possibility

The Impossible God of Paul Tillich

Atheism and the Sacred: Being-Itself

Pure Objective Reason

Criticizing Wicca: Rationality


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.

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.

  • Daniel Fincke

    For a long time there have been Christians trying to develop more rational versions of their religion with deeply mixed results. Do you expect Wicca to be any more easily purged of its woo despite the intentions of rationalist reformers within the movement?

    • Eric Steinhart

      Uh, “despite the intentions”? Do you mean “because of the intentions” of the rationalist reformers? Yeah, Wicca, at least in the books I’m reading, contains lots of explicit instructions that you ought to develop it in more naturalistic ways. Of course, those same books are filled with lots of woo. So who knows – it’ll be up to the Wiccans either to clean up their religion or to let it degenerate. As far as I can tell, there’s lots of desire to purge Wicca of New Age influences. (My recent Wiccan books often talk about flushing the New Age stuff out of Wicca or portray New Agers as “crazy”.) This is the movement to get rid of the “fluffy bunnies”; we’ll see how far it goes.

  • Nathair

    If you removed all of the irrational and the woo from Wicca, what exactly would be left?

    • Eric Steinhart

      Excellent question! That’s the whole purpose of this series: to see to what extend neo-paganism can be naturalized and de-mythologized. Why do that? Because neo-paganism presents itself as a nature-religion. Obviously, that self-presentation may be empty. After all the woo is burned away, perhaps nothing will be left. Or perhaps quite a bit will be left.

      My goal is to be scholarly and analytic about this: look at each aspect of Wicca in particular, to see what could be used by atheists and what would have to be rejected. Perhaps all of it would have to be rejected; perhaps much of it could be salvaged, I can’t say until the analysis is done.

      So far it looks to me like Wiccans, in their opposition to Christianity, have picked up lots of ideas from atheistic metaphysics, and have then clothed those ideas in rather childish and highly concrete words and images. Underneath the patina of philosophically immature thought and inappropriate concreteness, there seem to be lots of old atheistic ideas. Still, each aspect of Wicca needs careful study, thorough rational criticism; the good can be accepted, but the bad has to be sternly repudiated, and the ugly just has to be washed away.

  • Artor

    I used to consider myself Wiccan briefly, but the woo was too thick for my tastes. I’m still a Pagan, but also a sceptical atheist. Largely, I appreciate the poetic worldview of Paganism, while also enjoying a rational understanding of the science that makes it all work. Effective “magic” in my understanding is more like applied psychology with a liberal salting of NLP techniques.

    • Eric Steinhart

      That’s fascinating! Paganism as a sort of poetic interpretation of science does make considerable sense, and there are even many Wiccans who would agree with you that the only meaningful sense of “magic” is as scientifically validated applied psychology. Stay tuned, I’d love to hear more comments from you or anyone who shares your perspective.

    • Phledge

      YES, THIS. Even after abandoning the deities and rejecting the concept of “energy,” I still find myself relating to the Pagan awe of nature. I think you’re on the right track, Eric.

    • Marnie

      @Artor, Eric and Phledge

      What I find, perhaps, problematic with this is the same idea that “the golden rule” is somehow Christian. The idea of treating others how you’d like to be treated isn’t contingent on a belief in christianity, or any other religion, it’s a conclusion one can come to simply by being sensitive to what’s around you. Someone who learned this during their years as a christian, can jettison their christianity, without jettisoning their values of empathy and kindness. The two aren’t linked.

      I guess, in the absence of a definition of Wicca that can encompass both woo and wooless Wiccans, and that isn’t so vague as to cover almost anyone, I wonder if this non-woo-Wicca can really be called Wicca. Isn’t appreciating the wonder of the universe simply a product of the universe being so magnificent? Doesn’t it only become Wicca when you throw in some supernatural aspect? You can define a Christian as a person who believes in god and jesus, how do you define a Wiccan? Without this baseline; something that is both inclusive of all people who fall under the same umbrella of “Wiccan” but which also excludes people who do not, I feel like all this dancing around is meaningless. You only know what 2+2 is equal to if you know what “2″ and “+” means.

  • Marnie

    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).

    How many religious apologists have argued that smart, sane people follow their religion, therefore their religion is valid? You can be Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Wicca, Buddhist or any other religion at all, you can be smart, you can be a scientist, you can have no mental illness and you can still accept completely nonsensical claims as part of religion. I’m sure if they sit down and really ponder on it, it’ll drum up some cognitive dissonance, but our brains are more than adept at handling this bit of discomfort.

    I’ll say it, I think it’s akin to “creation science” to try to make Wicca compatible with atheism. It is completely reasonable to take aspects of religious practices and incorporate them into your secular life. Any of us who exchange gifts on Christmas or dye eggs on Easter have done this. It’s not because we’ve made Christianity compatible with atheism, it’s because we’ve held on to aspects of a religion in a non-religious way.

    This is the best an atheist can do with Wicca. Someone can enjoy meditation and a respect for nature, and music and drums and gatherings and controlling one’s emotions, and one can have acquired these traditions and methods from Wicca, but when you take the woo out, it is no longer Wicca, just as when you take the jesus and god out, it’s no longer Christianity.

    • Eric Steinhart

      You’re absolutely right that if Jesus and God are taken out of Christianity, it ain’t Christianity.

      I’m not so sure about your claim that if you take the woo out of Wicca, it ain’t Wicca. Wicca is just too open to alternative interpretations — and there are plenty of explicit passages in the authors I’m reading that say things like the god and goddess are just myths, or that some Wiccans don’t even worship them, or that some Wiccans don’t practice magic, or that for some Wiccans magic is just applied psychology, etc.

      Wiccan texts openly acknowledge that the woo is woo, and some of those texts encourage Wiccans to get rid of the woo. No Christian would ever be able to say that some Christians don’t believe in Jesus or (more importantly) in the Bible. So, there’s a very big difference. Plus, Wicca constantly insists on its commitments to naturalism of some type. But Christians explicitly insist on commitment to the super-natural. That’s another big difference.

      I think three groups will eventually evolve: (1) the puritanical atheists who don’t want to have anything to do with anything that even looks remotely religious; (2) the New Age neo-pagans who insist on the woo and are hopelessly lost in irrationality; and (3) some messy in-betweeners who take aspects of Wicca and atheism and fuse them into a more rational type of neo-paganism, one that is based in real science. It would be an atheistic nature-religion.

    • Marnie

      It seems to me, based on your reply to Nathair, that not even you can say whether there is Wicca without woo. You can look at, say, Deism versus Christianity or Judaism. Deists like Martin Gardner, Einstein, Thomas Jefferson and countless others, rejected everything in the prevailing religions, for a religion that didn’t require all the magical thinking, miracles, groveling and dogma. I think you are arguing that you can have Wicca without woo, without actually having a definition of Wicca that can support that claim. As you said above, you are still trying to unearth this woo-less Wicca. But it sounds to me like you are defining something wholly new and analog of Deism but for Wicca, something that doesn’t require any magical influence in daily life while still holding on to some appreciation for a greater wholeness.

    • Eric Steinhart

      As a philosopher, my job is to separate the woo from the non-woo. So, I’m interested in criticizing the woo in Wicca and pointing out the rational (or atheistic) structures. Beyond that, I have no interest, and I’m not trying to define anything.

      And you’re entirely right that I can’t say whether or not there will be a woo-free Wicca. I’m not a Wiccan, and I’m not even a neo-pagan, so it’s not up to me.

      For all I know, Wicca will turn into some degenerate New Age crap; or it will turn into some glorious atheistic nature-religion; or it will fade away; or a newly enraged Christian fundamentalism will crush it; or all the Wiccans will become anti-religious atheists. I have no idea.

      But I will say that the future of religion in America is wild.

    • Nathair

      my job is to separate the woo from the non-woo

      This suggests that there is some non-woo. Do you have any examples? I am not exactly expert in Wicca but it seems to me to be, while friendly and flexible about it, still just woo all the way down.

    • Eric Steinhart

      By the way, the analogy you mention is interesting: atheistic nature-religion is to Wicca as Deism is to Christianity. Maybe Wicca will split into fundamentalist woo-woo-Wiccans and liberal anti-woo-Wiccans. Who knows. And it’s interesting to see how Deism failed: the conservatives used the authority of the Bible to attack the Deists. No such authority exists in Wicca.

  • Eric Steinhart

    @Nathair – So far I’ve mostly been doing philosophical set-up, and talking about atheism. But try this: The Wiccan Deity: Related Concepts in Philosophy

  • F

    Controlling/engineering/hacking one’s self is what is interesting about things like Buddhism, shamanism, and some types of “magic”. Such things are hardly limited to “religions”, and I personally prefer to throw them all in a toolbox rather than join or practice some “religion” for these things. Problems come in when you start believing imagery in the tools in a way that affects your rational thinking – or when you use the tools to manipulate other people’s minds.

    I think a lot of arguments over what is left of Wicca when the woo is removed comes from the leaky definition of Wicca and who decides to identify as Wiccan. It’s interesting to me that there are non-woo-woo Wiccans.

  • Eric Steinhart

    @Artor, Marnie, F, and Phledge (I hope I got everybody, forgive me if I missed you) –

    You guys are raising really, really good points. I’m not Wiccan, I’m an outsider, so I can only base what I say on the texts I’ve got.

    From them, I’d say that there is a core structure of Wiccan doctrine (which I’ll be covering as the posts go on). The core includes at least the ultimate deity, the god and goddess, the wheel of the year, reincarnation, the rede, and magic. The core structure explicitly encourages some variation. This seems to come in part from the small size and independence of Wiccan groups. I find lots of stability in the core structure as I look over various authors.

    Wicca permits and even encourages you to develop your own interpretation of the core structure. Given some doctrine, you are encouraged to figure out what it means for you or your group. For example, given the doctrine of magic, you can think of it in woo woo terms, or reject that entirely and think of it as mind-hacking or applied scientific psychology for self-empowerment. So you still have a conceptual role for magic in your religious system, but you could fill in that role with woo or with serious science.

    Perhaps Wicca is a network of conceptual roles, like the players on a baseball team. The roles are interrelated, and you have to preserve the relational structure among those roles in order to be Wiccan. You need to have a pitcher, a catcher, a shortstop, etc. But you get to fill in the roles with the content of your choice, as long as the content does the job. Sorry for making that abstract. This is very, very different from an Abrahamic religion.

    Wicca currently looks like early Christianity. It took hundreds of years to develop a stable version of Christianity (which even then was pretty fractured). Young religions are messy, messy, messy. Still, I find a remarkable amount of common agreement in the core structure.

    You guys are really helping me think these issues through. Thank you!

  • Granny Weatherwax

    I’m not sure if I qualify as a totally woo-less Wiccan, but I am on the skeptical side, and I’ve started reading your series because I was thinking of writing a book on rational Wicca. I’ll give credit where credit is due if I do, promise.

    I think one of the main problems is that Wicca has for about 30 years been formed by and around books, and the publishers figured out long ago that woo sells. Teenagers (and immature/troubled adults) love the idea of playing around with magic and fairies and making people fall in love with them and getting what they want without hard work. There’s a constant complaint by the more experienced and mature that the market is flooded with barely-researched 101 books that ignore the heart of the religion for the shiniest trappings. Somewhere under all the marketing and glitter are some good metaphors and some reasonably practical ideas–living in accordance with the seasons, honoring ancestral knowledge, equality of the genders, things of that sort–and that’s what I want to pull out and examine. Our history is also contaminated with a lot of make-believe and wishful thinking (stuff like Margaret Murray and the fad for everything Celtic, for instance) that tends to perpetuate itself, though Hutton and a few others have tried to clear out the underbrush.

    What’s left if you take the woo out of Wicca? Same thing as when secular Jews take YVYH out of Judaism, perhaps, or when Buddhists let the Buddha be just a guy with a great insight. A practice, a way of being on the earth that tries to remember humans are a part of nature, rituals–with meaning–that anchor a person to a community and a place in the landscape, a means of psychological/mental development, or maybe just some (we hope) pretty good art. I’m still working at figuring it all out. I’ve been Neopagan for over 25 years, so I have a suspicion there’s more to it than wish fulfillment, but if there isn’t, I’ll write about that instead. And now I’ve missed my train. Wish I did have a working broomstick…

    • Eric Steinhart

      Thanks! I hope you’ll keep reading (and read the previous posts too).

      I’d love to hear more from you about how you view Wicca and rationality; I think there are some deeply interesting philosophical structures buried under all the woo. The task is to burn the woo away.

      If there are any books you think I should read (especially trying to uncover what is rational in Wicca), I’d love to hear about them. Note that I’m not especially interested in debates about the historical issues, only in philosophy, Wicca and science, etc.

  • SAWells

    The thought occurs: Eric, am I right about you personally not belonging or intending to belong to any kind of atheistic nature-religion? If so, why do you think that other people need you to hep construct an atheistic nature-religion?

    • Eric Steinhart

      At present there aren’t any atheistic nature-religions; so belonging to one or not is irrelevant. If there were one that was based on reason, and committed to justice and truth, then I would have neither any ethical nor any epistemic objections to being in it. Which obviously does not imply that I would be in one, merely that I would have no objections.

      As far as helping others build an atheistic nature-religion, I do have an interest in helping others build institutions or socially and politically effective groups that are based on reason, and committed to justice and truth. I’m more than happy to help anybody with the philosophical project of working out a rational religion that can serve as an alternative to the dominant Abrahamic religions in America (especially Christianity).

    • SAWells

      Interesting. Now, given that your interest is in “…helping others build institutions or socially and politically effective groups that are based on reason, and committed to justice and truth”, why should such an institution/group take the form of a religion?

      Is it connected to your rather strange claim that “our brains are hard-wired for religion?” If that was supposed to refer to the various human cognitive biases/Idols of the Tribe which make us susceptible to irrational beliefs, it seems a very bad summary. Rather like a doctor considering the human immune system, noting its complexities and vulnerabilities, deciding that we are “hard-wired for disease”, and then diligently setting out to create a new disease that’s available for anybody who hasn’t got one of the old ones.