Wicca and the Problem of Evil

This is a guest post by Eric Steinhart, Professor of Philosophy at William Paterson University.

Many Wiccan writers criticize Christians for dividing the ultimate deity into a purely good God and a purely evil Devil.  They deny this division.  Buckland writes: “the idea of dividing the Supreme Power into two – good and evil – is the idea of an advanced and complex civilization.  The Old Gods . . . were very much ‘human’ in that they would have their good side and their bad side.  It was the idea of an all-good, all-loving deity that necessitated an antagonist” (1986: 5).

The Farrars assert that polarity is very important for Wiccans.  But this polarity is not good versus evil.   However “the trap into which monotheist religions have fallen has been to equate polarity with good-versus-evil.  They recognize that the activity of the world around them is engendered by the interaction of opposites; but they see this interaction only as the battle between God and Satan” (1981: 111).  And monotheists are guilty of “debasing the Theory of Polarity into a mere conflict between Good and Evil” (1981: 113).

Cunningham likewise criticizes the division of the divine into a purely good God and a purely evil Satan.  The problem is “the concept of a pristine, pure, positive being – God.  If this deity is the sum of all good, worshipers believe that there must be an equally negative one as well.  Thus, Satan.  The Wicca don’t accept such ideas” (2004: 18).  Cuhulain affirms this by writing: “We [Wiccans] do not believe in the Christian God or the devil; . . . we do not have a forces-of-light versus forces-of-darkness concept” (2011: 30).  Sabin writes that “Wiccans do not believe in Satan.  Satan is a part of the Christian religion and Satanism is a Christian heresy” (2011: 22).

For Wiccans, the ultimate deity divides into a male god and female goddess.  Since this division does not correspond to a division between good and evil, it follows that the male god and female goddess must be mixtures of good and evil.  But even this seems to be too strong.  It seems more accurate to say that they are mixtures of positive and negative values.

Cunningham affirms that the god and goddess are mixtures of values: “We acknowledge the dark aspects of the Goddess and the God as well as the bright.  All nature is composed of opposites” (2004: 18, his italics).  He continues: “When death, destruction, hurt, pain, and anger appear in our lives (as they must), we can turn to the Goddesss and God and know that this is a part of them too.  We needn’t blame a devil on these natural aspects of life and call upon a pure-white god to fend them off” (2004: 19).

Religious naturalists like Donald Crosby have stressed the moral ambiguity of nature (2002; 2008).  Cunningham likewise affirms the moral ambiguity of nature.  Since they are natural powers, the Wiccan god and goddess are likewise ambiguous:

Yes, the God and Goddess have dark aspects, but this needn’t scare us off.  Look at some of the manifestations of their powers.  From a ravaging flood comes rich soil in which new plants thrive.  Death brings a deeper appreciation of life to the living and rest for the transcended one.  ‘Good’ and ‘evil’ are often identical in nature, depending on one’s viewpoint.  Additionally, out of every evil, some good is eventually born.  (Cunningham, 2004: 18-19)

Since Wiccans do not recognize a maximally perfect creator God (that is, they do not recognize the Christian God), their deities are immune to the Argument from Evil.  The Argument from Evil against the Christian God runs something like this: (1) God is all-good and all-powerful and all-knowing.  (2) If God is all-good, then God wants to abolish evil.  (3) If God is all-powerful and all-knowing, then God can abolish evil.  (4) If any agent wants to do something and can do it, then it does it.  (5) Therefore, God abolishes evil.  (6) But if God abolishes evil, then there is no evil.  (7) Hence there is no evil.  (8) However, it is obvious that there is evil.  (9) Consequently, an all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing God does not exist.  Since that is the Christian God, the Christian God does not exist.  Atheists often appeal to this argument to refute Christianity.  It will not work against Wicca.  And Christians often reply to the Argument from Evil by developing theodicies.  A theodicy tries to reconcile God with evil.  Wiccans need not develop any theodicies.

As with the god and goddess, so with humans.  For Cunningham, Wiccan anthropology says that humans, like the god and goddess, are natural mixtures of positivity and negativity “this polarity is also resident within ourselves.  The darkest human traits as well as the brightest are locked within our unconscious” (2004: 18).  It should be noted that this conception of human nature differs from the Christian conception of humanity as fallen, or the Calvinist notion that we are totally depraved or entirely lost in sin.

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.

Crosby, D. (2002) A Religion of Nature.  Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Crosby, D. (2008) Living with Ambiguity: Religious Naturalism and the Menace of Evil. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

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.

 

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.

  • http://marniemaclean.com Marnie

    So how are “good” and “evil” defined in Wicca? How about “male” and “female”?

    In reality, I see little value in the first two words at all, at least in a critical assessment of our physical world. Are hurricanes evil? Good? They are neither, of course. Is murder evil? Good? That really depends on context. A lion murders every time it eats but there’s nothing inherently evil about that even if that same lion makes value judgments about killing in his own pride.

    I think we also can agree that the latter categories or “male and female” are clumsy and may be alienating to a great many people. Dividing life along arbitrary gender lines hasn’t served us well in society.

    As always, I admit to my complete ignorance on this topic, but it helps me to understand the terminology and in this case, the words as I know them reflect already detrimental ideas encapsulated in the Abrahamic religions, where gender roles are strictly divided and people and actions fall into either “good” or “evil” categories.

    I find it hard to fathom how Wicca can be compatible with rational atheism if we are still maintaining antiquated concepts of gender and black and white definitions of morality.

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

      Those are very good questions, and very good objections.

      But why do you say the hurricane is neither good nor evil? Doesn’t it cause both good and evil effects? Why not say it is both good and evil, that it is ambiguous, as religious naturalists like Crosby say.

      On all these points, it may be that Wicca is very naive.

    • http://marniemaclean.com Marnie

      But why do you say the hurricane is neither good nor evil? Doesn’t it cause both good and evil effects?

      Well “good” is a vague term, but “evil” has a moral/ethical quality to it. I believe a lot in this world has no morality linked to it. Weather patterns are not conscious, they cannot be held accountable for their actions and they cannot be willed to act otherwise. Animals without the cognitive ability to make ethical choices cannot possibly be held to the standard of “good” or “evil.” When a slug eats your strawberries, it isn’t acting in an evil way, even if those strawberries are the difference between your family having enough to eat or not. There is nothing evil in its action it is simply unfortunate for you and fortunate for the slug.

      I think, perhaps, I reject how nebulous both terms are. Daniel’s post (linked below) is clearly an astute way to break down the ideas but isn’t this just taking a vague term and ascribing a more apt term to take its place? If the better term for “good” is “effective” that is a more meaningful way to talk about life. When 100 people ask a child “are you being good” their expectations for what they mean may all be different. When she respondes “yes I’ve been good” she may mean something else altogether. As I was trying to express in my first post, the language is problematic. We already live in a culture that tries to divide the world into “good” and “bad” and people into “men” and “women”. But I think the world is more nuanced than that.

      Back to Daniel’s post, I don’t think an apple can be accused of being a “good” apple or an “evil” apple by nature of it’s genetic make up, it’s growing conditions and it’s opportunity to reach maturity. Those are factors it has no means of controlling. I like a tangy crisp apple while my husband likes a sweeter and juicier apple, so the relative good/badness of the apple isn’t even fixed in any real way. The term is so vague and the standards so arbitrary that once again, the word losing meaning.

      There’s a reason writing instructors urge their students not to talk about something being “good” or “bad” or “nice”. The words are like ouija boards, they don’t convey anything. They are blank slates upon which the reader projects his hopes and biases.

      It’s not so much that I don’t enjoy the mental gymnastics of trying to extrapolate a means of dividing the world into clear categories. I think it’s good for the mind and for understanding your own values to explore these ideas, but I see a real risk in religion (or governments, for that matter) setting up these sorts of binary distinctions. There is a reason that people who are accused of a crime are tried in a court of his or her peers. Life isn’t so cut and dry. We shouldn’t be looking at any religion and trying to sculpt reality around it. That’s how we get apologists justifying slavery in biblical times. Either a concept stands on its own or it doesn’t. Either we have objective good and objective evil or we don’t.

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

      Good and evil are meaningful terms, they’re just contextual. Here is my take on the hierarchies, contexts, and spectra of good and bad, and on why murder is bad.

    • Granny Weatherwax

      I thought that Eric was making it pretty clear that Wicca doesn’t have a concept of absolute evil. I’m not sure where you’re getting the idea that we have “black and white definitions of morality.” “Evil” in an Abrahamic sense isn’t really a useful concept in Wicca; as Eric says above, it’s more useful to say “mixture of positive and negative values”. I agree with you that in regards to the natural world, “good” and “evil” are meaningless; most of us would say “in balance” and “out of balance” were more useful (e.g., purple loosestrife isn’t “evil”, but it sure throws things out of balance and disrupts the ecosystem).

      Turning to your question about “male and female”, I suspect you would like to accuse us of being gender esssentialists, but I don’t think that necessarily follows from having gendered concepts of deity–although it can, and that’s been a long, difficult discussion within Wicca itself, prompted by the increasing numbers and visibility of feminist, gay/lesbian and trans Wiccans over the last 2 decades. I do see a consensus growing in the community that social constructions of gender for humans are something different from the natural processes of reproduction that are honored in the persons of the Wiccan Goddess and God–the essential powers of Life, which are complementary rather than oppositional. Additionally, non-cis-gendered myths and small-g gods are being rediscovered and put to use in meditation and ritual–for instance, some MtFs are naming themselves as Galli (an ancient priesthood of eunuchs).

      Admittedly, I’m not fully au courant with standard Wiccan thought on duality, since I’m Dianic and we speak of the Goddess as “Whole Unto Herself”, encompassing all (including the God). What I can say is that although Wicca can’t really go leaping and bounding miles ahead of the culture its practictioners are embedded in, gender is an evolving concept within Wicca, and Wicca itself is an evolving cluster of ideas, changing as the times and the membership of the community change. We don’t have dogma the same way the monotheisms do; if something in Wicca doesn’t serve, it changes or it fades away. The “antiquated concepts of gender” you mention are, I think, one of those things.

    • http://marniemaclean.com Marnie

      Sorry, I definitely don’t mean to accuse anyone of anything, I am more extrapolating out how vagueness leads to greater strife between believers. I’m a little rambly and unorganized in my thinking, I’m just throwing out what comes to mind, but what I’m trying to say is that regardless of what a person means when they use vague terms like “good” “bad” “male” “female” the words are problematic because they can be distorted any which ways to serve someone’s own self interest.

      I’m essentially trying to play out what happens if, say, christianity dies off and Wicca becomes the dominant religion. When a religion is new, it tends to be amenable to change and interpretation. As it gains power, more dogma is introduced and sects break off and instead of being an all inclusive free for all, it becomes “us” and “them”.

      Since Christianity borrows heavily from paganism I think we see undercurrents of these same concepts already and they’ve been horribly misused. That doesn’t make Wiccans bad people, it makes the belief system open to abuse and misuse.

    • Granny Weatherwax

      Oh, sorry to have misread you, and glad to be wrong. The vagueness of language is a problem in every human endeavor, including religion and blogging. The discussion of what might happen to Wicca as it ages, gains respectability and potentially becomes institutionalized is an ongoing concern in the community, believe you me, and while we’re hoping to avoid the pitfalls Christianity fell into, that probably just means we’ll find new and original pitfalls.

      One thing: Christianity did indeed borrow generously from preceding paganisms, but it was very heavily influenced by Judaism, its parent religion, which of course was already monotheistic and dualistic. I would guess that Judaism was significantly more responsible for Christianity’s view of good and evil than was, for instance, Greco-Roman or Egyptian polytheism.

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

      Most of the dualism in Xianity, espcially the God-Satan dualism, comes from Augustine, who was a Manichean; and Manicheanism was itself an offspring of Zoroastrianism, with its Good God and Evil God.

  • JPlum

    I worry about you are using Buckland and the Farrars as sources, since they are kinda…hacks, really. I’ve never met a witch who wasn’t at least a bit horrified by them. Including me, when I was a witch. Well, that’s not entirely true-they were popular with a certain type of male witch, the kind who was into sex and power more than any actual spiritual practice.

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

      You raise a very good concern about my sources. I’m aware that the Farrars and Buckland are older sources, crossing from Britain to America, and that the nastier aspects of British Wicca get brightened up as Wicca evolves in America. Notice that I always try to use more recent American Wiccans like Cunningham, Cuhulain, Sabin, MacMorgan, and Silver Elder. I’m also aware of Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance. And I’ve tried to base my use of all these texts on my reading of secondary literature like Chas Clifton’s Her Hidden Children.

      I’m perfectly happy to concede my ignorance here.

      Please help by recommending any other primary sources that I could use.

    • JPlum

      I tended to be rather on the Dianic side of things, so the Gardnerian tradition really put me off. Being a teenager in London, Ontario, there was originally one Pagan store, and it was run by MEN! Creepy, creepy, men, and therefore not the most welcoming place for a 14-year-old girl!

      Starhawk is generally where I would direct people, rather than the Bucklands and Farrars

  • Eve

    Many hours and much booze have been consumed in the pursuit of a definition of evil from an American Neopagan point of view (with the corollary discussion of “Well, if we reject the idea of Satan, where does the evil come from?”). We did not come up with a consensus, objective definition of evil; although we did find consensus various examples of “that’s evil” (e.g., Pol Pot, sport homicide) or “that’s not” (e.g., a tornado, old age).

    This is all me speaking for myself, so take it with as many grains of salt as you feel is necessary.

    I’m an American of mixed African, Scots, French, and Apache ancestry; I self-describe as a relaxed agnostic*. I practice syncretic Wicca building on a Gardnerian foundation. I’ve had various gnosis experiences (which may well be no more than the Zeitgeist/my subconscious). I find both the social aspects of my practice and the “spiritual technology,” e.g., meditating, valuable. It’s also valuable to be able to “go to church” with like-minded peeps and without the groveling and we’re-so-undeserve-ing.

    My community of Wiccans and Heathens and fellow travelers has had its own struggles with rigid gender definitions and such, but we’ve generally come out accepting.

    Eve, also very much rambling

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

      There’s surely no need for an Evil Being that generates all evil. Evil can simply arise from conflicts among goods. (And there are other ways to talk about the origins of evil without invoking any evil diety.) Getting rid of Satan is one of the best ideas in Wicca.

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

    I’ll be putting up some posts in a few days about Wicca and gender, including Starhawk and Dianic Wicca. The strange sexuality of Gardinerian and early British Wicca is indeed off-putting (and it’s interesting to see that creepy Wicca get turned into American sweetness and light). But I find Starhawk to be far too theistic — her theology looks almost exactly like Christianity, just with a female deity instead of male (I note here her use of Mary Daly). Atheists certainly aren’t going to accept that. And if Wicca is just a female version of Christianity, then it hardly recommends itself as an interesting theological alternative to Christianity. On the other hand, it is interesting to see that there may be links between Dianic Wicca and feminist Catholicism, such as the Green Sisters movement. Perhaps I should refer to atheistic Wicca as “Athenic Wicca”, after the goddess of wisdom!

    • Granny Weatherwax

      Well, that should be interesting. I should perhaps mention that what information there is out there on Dianic Wicce is pretty outdated. Z Budapest’s “Holy Book of Women’s Mysteries” seems to be less useful as a guide to Dianic practice than as a historical document about the foundation of the trad, and I’m told her own practice has gone beyond its contents, though I don’t know her personally. I remember liking Jade River’s “To Know” and Shekhina Mountainwater’s “Ariadne’s Thread,” but again, both of those are a couple decades old. The most recent that I know of, and one of the best in my highly biased opinion, was written by my teacher Ruth Barrett: “Women’s Rites, Women’s Mysteries: creating ritual in the Dianic tradition.”

      I like the idea of Athenic Wicca. Athena was my favorite goddess as a small girl; it’d be nice to have a trad named after one of my personal Matrons!

  • K. Alan McDougall

    I am a solitary, self-initiated (I suppose self initiating is more accurate; the way I’m going, I’ll have graduated to “…ed” by the time I’m an old man…in my next life) Wiccan with my own small tradition. I like it that way. But that is not why I’m commenting: all the talk by Christians about “suffer not a witch to live,” and I don’t see much correcting of that quote, which in the original Hebrew was “suffer not a POISONER to live.” Given that the Old Testament/Torah originally belonged to a nomadic desert people, couldn’t that just apply to people who threw animal carcasses into wells and oases? If we move to people who actually made poisons, would that mean pharmacists should not be suffered to live?

  • JP

    Actually, I think this is a moment when over thinking has clouded the issues.

    It’s actually quite simple.
    Wiccan’s reject the idea that responsibility for “bad acts” lies with an external force and that you can be forgiven simply by asking to be forgiven. They would tell you that *you* are responsible for your actions and nobody else. They would also assert that natural disasters are not evil, predators hunting are not evil etc. They are simply the destructive side (sometimes referred to as the dark side) of universal physical processes and intrinsically linked to the creative side (lion kills, eats, feeds young etc. cycle of life).

    This is not ambiguous at all. Even the definition of “bad acts” is not all that ambiguous in that it would be define as “causing harm to others”.

    The hard part is determining what constitutes “harm to others”. This is something Wiccans struggle with all the time.
    It seems to me that the term is ambiguous because it must be. What is harm in one culture is not in another (this can even be true between houses next door to each other) It should be recognized that it would be impossible for all around you to be at complete peace relative to you, however, those around you must also take responsibility for themselves and their own “peace”. This might define “harm to others” at it’s most mundane, as a feedback loop between people relative to each other. When the balance is off, harm is done.


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