The Wiccan God and Goddess: Reality and Mythology

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:

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

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

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.

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.

 

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.

  • Artor

    Yes, yes, and yes. While not Wiccan, (since a couple-year stretch in college) I consider myself confidently Pagan, and just as confidently atheist. Perhaps if I were Hawking or Sagan, I could wrap my mind around the immensity and complexity of the universe, but I’m not, and I can’t do that without using some potent drugs that make it hard to act in the day-to-day world. So I turn to mythology and the gods of my Celtic ancestors as representations, or mental placeholders for those cosmic forces, and that frames them in a way that I can relate to them personally.
    In no way does any of this interfere with my fascination with science, or the study of comparative mythology. Rather, it was my interest in science & myth that led me to Paganism, via Joseph Campbell’s Transformations of Myth Through Time.
    I personally resent the anti-intellectual strain in Paganism which is often particularly bad in Wicca, along with an unhealthy dose of historical revisionism. But I suppose that if the image of Thor can help someone experience the awe of a thunderstorm on a personal level, the image of Marvel Comic’s Thor could do the same to someone who hasn’t read as much mythology. It’s frustrating when people don’t understand the difference though.

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

    I would be seriously queasy about being part of a religion that half the people interpreted with superstitious woo, even if the rationalist half of us had a winking interpretation of it. That’s not working well at all for liberal theists at present. It seems like a potential major step backwards for atheists if it ever did happen—it would murky the strong identification with a commitment to uncompromising rationalism which is now the best thing going for atheism.

    I can understand the idea of learning appropriable religious mechanisms from Wicca but without a nearly universal demystification of Wicca, the idea of a merger seems just impossible for rationalists—even if it is not “in principle” ruled out by mere atheism itself.

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

      I wouldn’t want to be part of any religion that would have me as a member….

      I don’t think there will be any “merger” of atheism and Wicca. But some atheists will drift towards more religious social structures and some Wiccans will drift to greater cognitive rigor. And those people will meet in the middle. My main point remains that, as Xianity breaks down, lots of people will pick and choose from both atheism and Wicca (and half a dozen other things). I might mention that many commenters have indicated passing from Xianity, through Wicca, to atheism.

  • http://marniemaclean.com Marnie

    A lot of these discussions sound like the approach taken in popular 12 step programs like AA. While proponents of AA will say that the “greater power can be anything, even a tree or a rock”, many atheists feel that the whole idea is silly at best and manipulative at worst.

    I’m somewhat uncomfortable with the term “atheistic Wicca(n)” If Wicca is a religion and part of the core of Wicca is an acknowledgment of a god and goddess (real or symbolic), it can be practiced secularly but it really isn’t atheistic. The term is an oxymoron, I would think. You might talk about the US being a secular government. That is not the same as saying it’s an atheist government. You can talk about Doctors Without Borders being a secular charity but it is not an atheist charity. .

    I also think reframing it makes it easier to have this discussion with non-believers. I can accept that someone who self identifies as Wiccan, Buddhist or Jewish might also say the have rejected any dogma or magic in their religion and view it strictly secularly, preferring to keep the rituals and the community instead of breaking off entirely. I cannot accept that you can identify with a religion and also be an atheist. I concede an exception for those who identify as Jewish by way of nationality but identify as atheist, religiously.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      As Eric defines atheism, it is specifically the rejection of theism, which is the idea of a personal transcendent God.

      There already exist atheistic religions, so I wouldn’t be so absolutist about saying the two are impossible to relate. Doctors without borders is a secular charity because it is neutral on the god question and (surely) has many theists who work for it and donate to it. Atheistic religions are ones where the adherents to the religion all agree there is no theistic god. An atheist religiosity is when someone who does not believe in gods participates in a religion–even when they share a religion with theists, as in the cases of atheistic Unitarians and atheistic Jews.

      Theists don’t have a lock on religion. And they shouldn’t be allowed to claim to do so. That only works to atheists’ disadvantage and theists’ advantage unnecessarily. Theists want people to think they cannot get any of the benefits of religion without the baggage of theism. Why accept that?

    • http://marniemaclean.com MissMarnie

      I see what you are saying but I still think a religion with gods/goddesses at its center cannot be atheistic, even if they are symbolic.

      I have to admit that I still can’t really get my head around the point of atheistic religion. There is no reason one can’t borrow from any number of religious and non-religious sources to define one’s own set of rituals and ethics and traditions. I guess the idea of trying to compartmentalize yourself that way is counter to the idea that we are all individuals with different life experiences, values and goals. If the definition of a religion is so completely nebulous and broad that anyone can fit into it, it’s not much of anything but if it’s got some sort of defined value system it ultimately asks the individual not to think for themselves on the topic.

      This may simply be my own shortcoming. I have simply not been able to find one part of my life that would be benefited by some sort of organized religion. But I’m also an introvert and someone who doesn’t put any real value in traditions and rituals. I don’t need weekly or monthly get-togethers or symbolic events to mark special events or to grieve. Clearly, not everyone shares this view.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Yes, I don’t think religion is necessary for everyone. I could do without most of what religion provides, personally. But it’s not wise for atheists to only cater to introverted temperaments. My most robust defense of the idea of atheistic religion is in this post if you’re interested: http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2011/12/21/answering-greta-my-goals-as-an-atheist-writer/


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