The Wiccan Deity: An Initial Philosophical Analysis

by Eric Steinhart

In this post I will talk about the Wiccan ultimate deity (which I’ll just refer to as the Wiccan deity).  This deity is not the Wiccan god or the goddess, but is ontologically prior to them.  My purpose in this post is to talk about some of the features of this deity and its relation to some older Western conceptions of the divine.

On the basis of the quotes in my earlier post, I’d say that the Wiccan deity has these main features:

1. Ultimacy.  The Farrars refer to the deity as “the Ultimate Source” (1981: 49); Buckland refers to it as the “Ultimate Deity” (1986: 19); Cunningham refers to it as “ultimate” (1988: 9).   Ultimacy means that the deity is at the extreme end of some ontological scale; it is somehow at the top or bottom of some serial relation (of causality, of dependency, of abstraction, of power, etc.).  Ultimacy usually means independent.   To use traditional language, the deity has aseity.  It exists in and through itself.

2. Immanent.  The Farrars tell us that the deity manifests itself through Its creations (1981: 154).  Silver Elder says “The concept of Deity and the sacred in Paganism and therefore, also in Wicca, is not transcendent, but immanent and indwelling in all” (2011: 9).  And Cuhulain reports that “the Divine is immanent in everything around us.  We do not separate the Divine from the everyday world . . . Everything around us is divine” (2011: 14).  As immanent, the Wiccan deity is not supernatural.  It is not above or beyond nature.  On the contrary, this is a naturalistic conception of the divine.

3. Power.  Buckland refers to the deity as “this higher power” as a “force” and as an “incomprehensible power” (1986: 19); Cunningham refers to it as a “supreme divine power”and as a “force” (1988: 9); and the American Council of Witches refers to it as “the Creative Power of the Universe” (Cuhulain, 2011: 28).

4. Creative.  The Farrars refer to the deity as the “Ultimate Source” and as “the Divine creative principle of the Cosmos” (1981: 12) and they say it is the ultimate source of energy (1981: 117).  They say that “the Divine Principle of the Cosmos is . . . eternally creative, manifesting through Its creations” (1981: 154).  Cunningham tells us that it is “a supreme divine power . . . from which the entire universe sprang” (1988: 9).  Silver Elder refers to it as the “Divine Source of All” (2011: 9).  And the American Council of Witches says it is “the Creative Power of the Universe” (Cuhulain, 2011: 28).

5. Impersonal.  Buckland says the deity is a “genderless force” (1986: 9).  And according to Cunningham “the supreme power was personified into two basic beings: the Goddess and the God” (1988: 9).  Thus the deity is impersonal and then becomes personified in male and female forms.  On an odd note, the Farrars say that the deity is “conscious” (1981: 154).  And I’m told there are other references to the mentality of the Wiccan deity (e.g. the Dryghtn Prayer).   To be sure, the notion that the deity is conscious, or has any mentality, is seriously out of line with every other aspect of the Wiccan deity (and with the longer tradition in which it is situated).  So I’ll put this down as an error.  Impersonality follows from ultimacy and immanence.  There are no persons immanent in all things.

6. Hidden. Buckland says the deity is “so far beyond our comprehension that we can have only the vaguest understanding of its being.  Yet we know it is there” (1986: 19).  Cunningham says it is “unknowable” and “far beyond our comprehension” (1988: 9). To use an older expression: we know that it is but not what it is.  Of course, to say that the deity is hidden does not imply that it is cognitively inaccessible.  We have cognitive access to it through our own being.  Silver Elder says “We are an integral part of the All, having been created by the Divine Source of All, and therefore bear the blueprint of the Divine Source, giving us potential for a direct connection with [the Divine Source]” (2011: 9).  Here there are obvious links to the Western mystical tradition (which, it must be stressed, is non-theistic).  Hiddenness follows from ultimacy and immanence.

On this analysis, the Wiccan deity is the ultimate immanent creative power of being.  Now there are several points to be made.

The Wiccan deity is an idea of the divine with a very long and venerable history in Western philosophy.  It does indeed go back to the Platonic Form of the Good and to the Plotinian One.  And this point must be stressed: Plato and Plotinus were ancient pagan philosophers.  Later they become Christianized, but they weren’t Christians.  One might try to analyze the Wiccan deity using the old Platonic and Neoplatonic texts.  But those texts are indeed ancient, and, as such, they are foreign to us in many ways.  It’s fine to say that the Wiccan deity has Neoplatonic roots, but we should probably leave it at that.  Of course, there are clear parallels with the deities in the Western mystical tradition.

The Wiccan deity is not the God of Abraham.  Nor is it the Christian God.  And it is not even deistic (in the sense of early modern deism).  Since the God of panentheism is both immanent and transcendent, the Wiccan deity is not the panentheistic God.  The main difference in each case is that the Wiccan deity is entirely immanent.   Strictly speaking, the Wiccan deity is non-theistic.  So, an atheist (someone who denies the existence of any theistic deity) should have no objections to the Wiccan deity.  And I think it would be inappropriate to refer to the Wiccan deity as “God”; the term “Source” is much better.

The Wiccan deity has some affinities with the various deities in pantheisms.  And Silver Elder has some confusing language about the identity of each thing and the deity with the “All”.  However, I don’t see these pantheistic affinities as significant.  The Wiccan deity is not the Spinozistic substance.  Nor is it a whole of which all things are literally parts.  Still, for those who like the “New Atheists”, it would be interesting to compare the Wiccan deity to the concept of the divine in the first chapter of Dawkin’s The God Delusion.  I’ll save that commentary for later; but here is a place where any thoughtful atheist ought to be on the lookout for some interesting similarities.

If I’m right that the Wiccan deity is the ultimate immanent creative power of being, then why would any atheist object to that?

References: Buckland, R. (1986) Complete Book of Witch Craft.  Second Edition Revised and Expanded.  St. Paul, MI: Llewellyn Publications.  Cuhulain, K. (2011) Pagan Religions: A Handbook for Diversity Training.  Portland, OR: Acorn Guild Press.  Cunningham, S. (1988) Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner.  St. Paul, MI: Llewellyn Publications.  Farrar, J. & Farrar, S. (1981) A Witches Bible.  Blaine, WA: Phoenix Publishing.  Silver Elder (2011) Wiccan Celebrations: Inspiration for Living by Nature’s Cycle.  Winchester, UK: Moon Books.

Other posts in the series so far:

Atheism and Wicca

The Wiccan Deity

The Theistic Deity and Atheism Defined

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

Criticizing Wicca: Levels

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.

  • sqlrob

    If I’m right that the Wiccan deity is the ultimate immanent creative power of being, then why would any atheist object to that?

    Because ultimacy implies a causality that may not exist.

    • ‘Tis Himself, OM

      My thought as well.

      Why does there have to be any “creative power of being”? More and more, it’s looking like the universe just is. Nothing poofed it into existence. I have no problem with the Wiccan deity being nothing, just like every other deity invented by people.

  • Nele

    If I’m right that the Wiccan deity is the ultimate immanent creative power of being, then why would any atheist object to that?

    Eric, are you kidding me? As an atheist I most certainly object to the very concept of a metaphisical deity. Personally I couldn’t care less if you differentiate conceptually between the concepts “god” and “deity” which I consider as synonyms – as they have been since the 14th century.

    Who cares if you see the difference in some kind of ontological status? You are just replacing one metaphysical, all-powerful and all-causing being with another one and choose to call one “deity” and the other “god”. To do this, you are playing with a rather restricted definition of “atheist” as “a-theist”, as somebody who denies the existence of a person-like god. This is the only way you can pull off your dialectic schtick.

    If you like to pray to a Wiccan deity/god, be my guest. But please don’t try to be an atheist at the same time. You can’t have a cake and eat it.

    Or am I completely off the track and this is some kind of philosophical in-joke which I don’t get because I am a stupid and humourless German? ;)

    • Kate from Iowa

      hmmm…was thinking along the “I don’t get it” (as well as the “this is exactly why I dropped all my philosophy courses when I was in college”) lines myself…but then again, Iowa has had a large root-German population over quite a bit of it’s history…

  • Steve Schuler

    So the plot thickens…

    “…why would any atheist object to that?” is certainly a provocative question and I suppose I’ll have to wait and see just what it provokes beyond sqlrob’s and Nele’s responses.

    I’m not sure where Eric is heading with all of this but I think it might have something to do with someone suggesting to a Dragon Slayer that there may be many dragon’s left to slay in the universe beyond the one you are attempting to kill in your own neigborhood, metaphorically speaking that is.

  • Evan Guiney

    “why would any atheist object to that” is indeed an interesting question. I think many atheists hold humanism and naturalism, or even the dread “scientism” as related and perhaps inextricable philosophies. Certainly my own atheism reinforces and is reinforced by my scientific epistimology and moral nonrealism.

    I guess this really just reminds me of Sagan’s question about the invisible, immaterial dragon in the garage. If a belief has no consequences and doesn’t do any ‘work’ in the world, and a god would pretty much have to be of this sort to be acceptable to a naturalistic atheist, the whats the point of believing it it? what does it even *mean* to believe in it?

  • http://peicurmudgeon.wordpress.com/ peicurmudgeon

    I didn’t post before because I wondered if it was just me. I can’t get my head around ‘a creative force’ being different that a creator.

    As Evan says, it a deity doesn’t interact with our universe, it is irrelevant. I just can’t get my head around what you are trying to say here.

  • Robert B.

    If I’m right that the Wiccan deity is the ultimate immanent creative power of being, then why would any atheist object to that?

    Well, atheism per se, especially as you define it, might not motivate such objections. However, many atheists, including myself, disbelieve in God or gods because of a commitment to rationalism, and rationalism does in fact generate a few troubles for you.

    One might object that there is no evidence that the “creative power of being” is unified in a single entity. (Or at least, that you have presented no such evidence.) There’s no reason to think that creativity is ontologically or causally ultimate. Evidence from studying other religions suggests that any “cognitive access to [the Wiccan deity] through our own being” is likely to be imaginary or mistaken.

    The claim that the Wiccan deity is not supernatural seemed especially misleading. I understand you to mean that the Wiccan deity is believed (by Wiccans) to be within the laws of nature. Certainly that’s what you have evidence for. But this does not establish that the Wiccan deity is actually within the laws of nature. It does not even establish that the Wiccan deity fails to contradict our current understanding of the laws of nature.

    I started reading this article with the impression that you were simply providing information on a less-known religion; under that interpretation, “the Wiccan deity is not supernatural” can be comfortably taken as a well-supported statement about what people believe. With your last line, you suddenly made it clear that you intended to be convincing on a matter of fact – the existence or nonexistence of a certain entity. In that context, the line “the Wiccan deity is not supernatural” shifts, and seems to become a statement about facts. After the reader has accepted the statement based on the supporting evidence, you change its meaning after the fact, to something that the evidence does not support. I don’t know what your intention was, but the effect is of a bait-and-switch, a rhetorical deception.

    Lastly, the designation of the Wiccan deity as “hidden” or “unknowable” is epistemologically damning. If we can have “only the vaguest understanding” of something, then we can never determine with any confidence what would constitute evidence for or against its existence. Nor can we decide with any confidence how our actions or expectations should change if we somehow determined it was real. Simply put, anything supposed to be “unknowable” becomes, thereby, entirely useless to rational thought.

    And it raises the obvious question: how do you know it is unknowable? Whoever assigned that property to the Wiccan deity cannot have had a rational reason to do so. When something is called “unknowable” this tells us nothing at all about the thing in question. It tells us only that someone, somewhere, is running a scam – that is, making deliberate efforts to avoid the truth.

    I hope this provides at least a partial answer to your question.

  • http://www.twitter.com/jalyth Jalyth

    I don’t know if I specifically object to ‘that’, as an atheist. But this post I think illustrates why for me Wicca was a step on the path from Christianity to atheism. I couldn’t let go of god entirely and needed to think about a genderless creative force in the universe. A bit later, I couldn’t take it seriously. Too many candles (and infighting, just like church). Wicca was my rebound religious relationship.

  • sawells

    The central problem of “How do you know these things that you claim to know?” is going to kill this one just like every other deity.

    Of course, if all the authors cited would simply say “I like to pretend that…” instead of “I believe…” when talking about deities, cosmic purpose and whatever, we wouldn’t have a problem.

  • Nele

    Additionally to Sawell’s and Robert’s remarks: what is the actual difference between on the one hand a christian creator-god who can be found everywere and in everybody, but who is unknowable in the end; and on the other hand a wiccan deity, an unknowable but omnipresent source of creation?

    Why is one transcendent and the other one not? Because somebody, erhm, says so? And I am supposed to believe that now, or what?

    If this thing is naturalistic and real, it should be possible to detect and measure it empirically, or at least to deduct its existence theoretically from knowledge and theories gained via empirical science. If that isn’t possible, because the thing is unknowable, well, “duh”!

    Sorry to sound harsh, but arguments like the one above is the reason why philosophy has the reputation of mere word-juggling and is considered to be useless to give answers about the real world.

  • Scott L Bleasdale

    I know quite a few Wiccans (and many more ‘Heathens’ who were Wiccans but then drifted towards the Northern Tradition) and as far as I can tell they wouldn’t trust the Fararrs if the Fararrs had announced that their surname was Fararr!

    Gardner on the other hand….

    I can understand the reaction here- and I am aware that this is anecdotal at best- but I don’t think very many Wiccans see ‘the Source’ as a deity at all. Despite the Farrars inability to make shit up without relying on their Cultural Christian background, most of the Wiccans I have met and know see the ‘Godess/god-entity/Source/Origin’ as nature. I believe they are pantheist wrapped up in Gardnerian pre-hippy nonsense.

  • sunnydale75

    >If I’m right that the Wiccan deity is the ultimate immanent creative power of being, then why would any atheist object to that? <

    -The claims made by followers of Wicca and Christianity both involve unknowable entities that can neither be observed or measured in any way. These entities, whether its yahweh, the divine goddess, or god are ideas about our universe that have no empirical support for their existence.

    When I say I'm an atheist, I make the statement that I lack a belief in a higher power or powers. In addition to that, I also lack a belief in anything "supernatural". So the divine goddess, Thor, unicorns, fairies, elves, and Superman are all fictitious.

    Tony

  • Scott L Bleasdale

    Please ignore my comment above. I spent some talking with a few Wiccan friends last night and what I say in my comment is complete bollocks; they agree with the blog post (well, sort of). My apologies.

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

    Now I’m starting to see more of where you’re coming from, if you’re not talking about the God and Goddess or any of the polytheistic deities of myth, but the ultimate source type of idea. You make good points about that idea, so far as I understand it. I can’t say I know any Wiccans, Pagans, or Pagan traditions who give much attention to that idea. The emphasis is by and large on the Goddess and God or specific named deities. Accordingly, Wicca is usually talked about as duotheism or polytheism. The ultimate source thing is perhaps analogous to Brahman in modern Hinduism, acknowledged but worshiped by very few indeed.

    One noteworthy exception is Glenys Livingstone’s PaGaian Cosmology, which uses Goddess as metaphor for the creative power of the Cosmos itself. It is not even a religion of deity, but rather “a Poetry of Place” (in Livingstone’s words). That sounds very much like what you’re describing.

    Another exception may be Goddess spirituality, which can be similar to Wicca but usually seems distinct from it. It is often more closely identified with feminism, and gives all attention to the Goddess without necessarily acknowledging a God principle as well. I’m not well informed on Goddess spirituality, so I won’t say much further except that it may be a direction worth checking out.

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

      I do talk about the god and goddess, in a subseries of this series, where I argue that they can be thought of naturalistically as symbols referring to objective will (the god) and objective reason (the goddess). Here’ one of these post on the god and goddess. Note that the issues are developed in the next few posts after that. I’ll be interested in your thoughts.


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