This is a guest post by Eric Steinhart, Professor of Philosophy at William Paterson University.
The Farrars have an intriguing discussion of the ontological commitments of Wiccans to their god and goddess. Their discussion has three parts: (1) the realist thesis; (2) the anti-realist antithesis; and (3) the pragmatic resolution.
The more detailed version of the Farrar’s discussion goes like this: (1) The realist thesis says that the god and goddess really do exist: “To the age-old question ‘Are the Gods real?’ (or as a monothesist would put it, ‘Is God real?’), the witch answers confidently ‘Yes.’ To the witch, the Divine Principle of the Cosmos is real.” (1981: 154). (2) The anti-realist antithesis says that the god and goddes are merely symbols: “A non-religious psychologist would probably answer ‘No’ to the same question. He would maintain that the Archetypes, though vital to man’s psychic health, are merely elements in the human Collective Unconscious and not (in the religious sense) cosmic in nature.” (1981: 154). (3) The tension between realism and anti-realism is resolved pragmatically: “from the point of view of the psychic value of myth, ritual, and symbolism, the somewhat surprising answer to the question is, ‘It doesn’t matter.’” (1981: 154)
For the Farrars, the reality or non-reality of the god and goddess is a matter of personal decision: “ Each man and woman can worry out for himself or herself whether archetypal God-forms were born in the human Collective Unconscious or took up residence there (and elsewhere) as pieds-a-terre from their cosmic home – their importance to the human psyche is beyond doubt in either case, and the techniques for coming to healthy and fruitful terms with them can be used by believers and non-believers alike.” (1981: 154)
For the Farrars the reality or non-reality of the god and goddess is a matter of religious indifference. For them, Wicca is a religion in which ontological commitment is secondary to pragmatic value. An atheistic Wicca is thus compatible with their view. Indeed, the Farrars conclude with an as-if approach to to the god and goddess: “Voltaire said ‘If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.’ That remark can be taken as cynical; but it can also be rephrased: ‘Whether the archetypal God-forms are cosmically divine, or merely the living foundation-stones of the human psyche, we would be wise to seek intercourse with them as though they were divine.’” (1981: 154) Sabin also adopts this indifference: all that matters is the practical value of the deities (2011: 118).
Buckland begins his discussion of the god and goddess with an epistemic problem. He first says that the Wiccan ultimate deity is “so far beyond our comprehension that we can have only the vaguest understanding of its being” (1986: 19). Note that Buckland does not say that the ultimate deity is completely beyond comprehension; it is merely epistemically extremely distant (much like Anselm’s “that than which no greater is possible”). He says we do have a vague understanding of it. But this raises a problem: how can humans interact “with such an incomprehensible power” (1986: 19).
Remarkably, Buckland suggests that the solution to the problem of epistemic access to the ultimate deity was provided by Xenophon! Xenophon argued that the gods and goddesses are merely human projections. And indeed this is affirmed by Buckland: the god and goddess are “our representations – our understandable forms – of the Supreme Power” (1986: 20). Buckland states that the god and goddess are produced when our minds attempt to understand the Wiccan ultimate deity in human terms: “we have this idea of an Ultimate Deity, an incomprehensible power, and in trying to relate to it we have split it into two main entities, a male and a female” (1986: 21). And that “those we know as the God and the Goddess are our intermediaries. . . . These are the names used for the ‘understandable forms’ of the Supreme Power, the Ultimate Deity” (1986: 21).
Silver Elder writes: “within this work you will find frequent reference to the God and Goddess . . . Reference is not being made to physical people resembling us, instead these are energies and forces which we perceive through our own psychic powers using visualization and mental focus. . . . in order to make these perceived higher powers more intellectually accessible . . . we make them representative. We personify them and give them names . . . We therefore call them the God and Goddess . . . and give them physical representation.” (2011: 18)
For atheists, it is interesting that Wiccans explicitly allow for a purely mythological interpretation of their god and goddess. This contrasts with Christianity and with the other Abrahamic religions, which insist only on the reality of the theistic deity. On the mythic interpretation, Wiccans frankly confess that the god and goddess are merely human projections or human symbolic creations. Atheists typically say that gods and goddesses are myths; at least some Wiccans agree. This suggests that Wicca might serve part of the basis for a future atheistic nature-religion in America. My only purpose here is to describe the possible future tendencies of the evolution of religion in America.
Other posts in this series:
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.
Sabin, T. (2011) Wicca for Beginners: Fundamentals of Philosophy and Practice. Woodbury, MI: Llewellyn Publications.
Silver Elder (2011) Wiccan Celebrations: Inspiration for Living by Nature’s Cycle. Winchester, UK: Moon Books.