This is a guest post by Eric Steinhart, Professor of Philosophy at William Paterson University.
The Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) are religions of revelation. As is well-known, these religions are derived from the experiences of religiously privileged individuals (prophets, messiahs, inspired writers) to whom it is alleged that God spoke. These religions say that God revealed special information to these privileged people. This information comes neither from our senses nor from pure reasoning. It is super-scientific and super-logical information that comes from a super-natural source. As such, it is beyond empirical or rational criticism, and it must be accepted on faith. And the people to whom it is revealed are special authorities who must be uncritically obeyed.
At least in the Bible, this revelation includes descriptions of the creation of the universe in Genesis; the divinely revealed Mosaic commandments and laws in the Old Testament; the moral principles laid down by Jesus or by Paul in the New Testament; and the descriptions of the end of the earth in Revelations. Of course, most Christians say that the entire Bible was divinely inspired, and thus has a special epistemic status. Many atheists, especially those motivated by empiricism, object to this special epistemic status. And many atheists object to faith and to the authoritarianism that goes with it.
By contrast, neo-pagan religions like Wicca are not revealed religions; they are religions of manifestation. Cuhulain quotes a fellow Wiccan as saying that Wicca is “a manifest religion, as opposed to a revealed religion such as Christianity or Islam. Wicca holds that the God and Goddess are manifest in all of nature, and are accessible to all. . . . Wicca has no prophets or messiahs” (2011: 29). Thus Cuhulain claims that Wicca is democratic rather than authoritarian: “We don’t have prophets; if someone asks what the word of God / Goddess is, we teach them to listen for it. We all have equal access to Divinity” (2011: 14). And Sabin writes that “[t]here is no central church of Wicca” and that Wicca has no sacred scriptures (2011: 13). She writes that Wicca has “no dogma (rules imposed by religious leaders)” and that Wicca is theologically democratic and individualistic (2011: 21). Cunningham says that “There is not, and can never be, one ‘pure’ or ‘true’ or ‘genuine’ form of Wicca. There are no central governing agencies, no physical leaders, no universally recognized prophets or messengers” (2004: ix–x).
For Wiccans, the ultimate deity is not revealed by any authority; on the contrary, it is naturally manifest to all: “In Wicca we know that there is a Higher Power, an Ultimate Force, the Archetypal Energy, the Supreme Power, because we see it manifest in Nature and within ourselves each and every day” (Silver Elder, 2011: 18). The ultimate deity, which is non-theistic, is simply the natural creative power of being. It is empirically manifest in the Big Bang, in the evolution of physical complexity in the cosmos, in the thermonuclear fusion in the sun, in the evolution of biological complexity on earth, in the metabolic vitality of animal and human life, and in all forms of desire and will.
For Wiccans, the god and goddess are not revealed by any authority; on the contrary, they are naturally manifest in the sexual dimorphism of common in earthly life. Buckland writes that “the Ultimate Deity was equated with both masculine and feminine . . . broken down into a god and goddess. This would seem most natural since everywhere in nature is found this duality” (1986: 20). Cunningham writes that “The Goddess and God are both within ourselves and manifest in all of nature” (Cunningham, 2004: 4). Cuhulain quotes “Wicca holds that the God and Goddess are manifest in all of nature” (2011: 29).
For Wiccans, the cycles of nature are divine. These cycles include the yearly solar cycle and the monthly lunar cycle. These cycles are not revealed by authorities; on the contrary, they are manifest to everybody: “Nature’s cycle manifests itself in our daily life and bio-rhythms” (Silver Elder, 2011: 8). These cycles include the lunar cycle, which is manifest in the tides and which Wiccans say corresponds to the period of the menstrual cycles of human females (Silver Elder, 2011: 19; see the Farrars, 1981: 13). The lunar cycle includes the full moons as its holidays. These are celebrated with esbat rituals.
The divine natural cycles also include the solar cycles. One solar cycle is experienced daily as the cycle of day and night, waking and sleeping (Silver Elder, 2011: 43). The daily cycle is included within the larger yearly cycle. Cunningham writes that “The yearly cycle of greening, maturation and harvest has long been associated with the sun, hence the solar festivals of Europe . . . are still observed in Wicca” (2004: 13). And Sabin says that “Since Wicca is a nature-oriented religion, it places great emphasis on the changing cycle of the seasons, which Wiccans refer to as the ‘wheel of the year’” (2011: 155). The solar cycle (the Wheel of the Year) includes eight holidays: the solstices and equinoxes plus four intermediate days. These are celebrated with sabbat rituals.
For Wiccans, observable natural cycles justify reincarnation. Obviously, justification does not entail truth (lots of false theories are empirically justified). The solar cycle of vegetation is a cycle of repeated life and death; it is a cycle of plant and seed. Although the same plant does not reappear in the next season, there is regeneration at the species level. And this solar cycle is also found in the alternation of animal activity and hibernation. Wiccans use this cyclical pattern to justify reincarnation. Silver Elder writes that “the Wheel of the Year forms the story of birth, life, death and rebirth, the Cycle of Infinity and Reincarnation with the seasonal cycle acting as the metaphor for the regeneration of life” (2011: 23). Of course, reincarnation is not directly manifest. However, Wiccans will argue that it is inferred by empirical generalization. Obviously, this generalization is open to criticism; it must and will be criticized in later posts in this series. Here it is sufficient to note that the Wiccan belief in reincarnation is derived by an inference from nature (even if it is a faulty inference), rather than by super-natural revelation.
The thesis that Wicca is a religion of manifestation comes into conflict with one of the central aspects of Wicca, namely, it’s use of magic. Magic is not manifest at all; on the contrary, the practice of magic contradicts everything that nature does manifest. Nature manifests all and only those causal relations that can be revealed by science. And the causal relations that have already been revealed by nature to science are sufficient to refute the very idea of Wiccan magic. Appeals to the future of science cannot help: Wiccans cannot say that science will reveal causal relations that support their magical practices. Wiccan magic involves trivial operations on perfectly well-understood ordinary things. Any Wiccan who believes that Wicca is a religion of manifestation has to repudiate magic.
Some (but not all) other posts in this series:
Buckland, R. (1986) Buckland’s Complete Book of Witchcraft. Second Edition Revised and Expanded. St. Paul, MI: Llewellyn Publications.
Cuhulain, K. (2011) Pagan Religions: A Handbook for Diversity Training (Shamanism Paganism Druidry). Portland, OR: Acorn Guild Press.
Cunningham, S. (2004) Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner. St. Paul, MI: Llewellyn Publications.
Farrar, J. & Farrar, S. (1981) A Witches’ Bible: The Complete Witches’ Handbook. Blaine, WA: Phoenix Publishing.
Sabin, T. (2011) Wicca for Beginners: Fundamentals of Philosophy & Practice (For Beginners (Llewellyn’s)). Woodbury, MI: Llewellyn Publications.
Silver Elder (2011) Wiccan Celebrations. Winchester, UK: Moon Books.