Atheistic Wicca

[This is Eric Steinhart's next to last post in my long series on atheism and Wicca.]

My approach to Wicca has been critical.  For philosophers at least, and hopefully for any rational person, criticism is based on careful analysis; it points to both the good and to the bad, to the true and to the false.  It cannot be one-sided; it must strive to be fair.  And it certainly isn’t knee-jerk hostility.

One of the goals of philosophical analysis is to look for deep structure underneath surface structure.  When such analysis is applied to religion, its task is to look for the conceptual and rational logos underneath religious mythos.  This series of posts has worked to look beneath the Wiccan mythos for its logos.  Contrary to those who without thinking dismiss Wicca as entirely made of woo, this series indicates that Wicca is not merely mythos; on the contrary, it has a logos, it contains a logical deep structure.

Unfortunately, this logos is all too often covered with layer after layer of woo – with wishful thinking, pseudo-science, anti-rational or even mentally disturbed thinking.  Some Wiccans may be offended by the term woo, which seems derogatory.  To them it must honestly be said that their own books and websites present doctrines that are manifestly indefensible by people who use modern technology and that, frankly speaking, many of those books and websites seem to prey on the emotionally vulnerable and mentally unstable.  The promotion of magic is especially both cognitively and ethically offensive.

And yet the woo in Wicca is not necessary; it serves certain psychological functions which an be served honestly.  An entirely woo-free Wicca is possible.  If an ancient honorific name is needed for this approach to Wicca, it might be called Athenic Wicca, after Athena, the goddess of wisdom.  Of course, atheistic Wiccans might just prefer to call it atheistic Wicca.  The core structures of a woo-free Wicca might look something like this:

1.  The Ultimate Deity.  On the mythic surface, the Wiccan ultimate deity is presented in theistic language.  But most Wiccan texts already describe the ultimate deity in rational terms.  The ultimate deity is just the ultimate immanent creative power of being.  It is wholly immanent and natural.  It is natura naturans.  Many atheists have argued for the reality of natural creative power.  Atheistic Wicca affirms the reality of the ultimate deity; however, it rejects all theistic or mythic attributes of this ultimate deity – it is not God.

2.  The God and Goddess.  On the mythic surface, the Wiccan god and goddess are spirit-people.  But there is no evidence for the existence of such people.  Atheistic Wiccans reject all spirit-people as idolatrous projections.  But the symbolism of the god and goddess points beyond itself to a deep structure under the mythic surface.  The deep structure is two abstract powers of being.  Natura naturans expresses itself as objective will and objective reason.  Objective reason is symbolized by the goddes and objective reason by the god.  But they are not spirit-people; they are merely symbols for abstract natural powers.

3. The Wheel of the Year.  On the mythic surface, the Wheel of the Year symbolizes the life-cycle of the god and goddess as a productive couple.  When the Wheel is rationalized, it symbolizes all the cycles of nature; ultimately, it concretely represents the abstract algorithmic iteration in the logic of creation and evolution by rational selection.  The Wheel symbolizes the logical action of the Priniciple of Sufficient Reason as it generates all natural complexity.

4. Reincarnation.  According to reincarnation, souls pass from body to body here on earth.  This is the transmigration of souls.  And transmigration is mythic.  It is a concrete way of referring to something more abstract.  This myth of transmigration points beyond itself towards rebirth.  Rebirth is palingenesis – it is the recreation of a counterpart of the self in some other universe.  It is expressed more clearly in Theravedic Buddhism and it gains some empirical justification from the arguments of Kurt Godel.  While transmigration is mythos, palingenesis is logos.   As rational rebirth, it is supported by the logic of creation and evolution by rational selection.  Atheistic Wicca affirms rebirth.

5. Personal Activities.  Wiccan writers describe various techniques for self-empowerment.  Such techniques include meditation (mindfulness), breathing, visualization, and other techniques for arousal regulation and self-optimization (self-mastery, self-discipline, askesis).  The Wiccan writers typically cover these techniques with a thick coating of woo.  However, these techniques have scientific foundations.  If any technique for work on the self is empirically supported, then atheistic Wiccans are free to use it.  And such techniques should be used.   Through these techniques, the rational manifestation of the will of the self is maximized.  Thus natura naturans is maximally manifest through the self.

6. Social Activities.  Atheistic Wiccans celebrate the sabbats without any theistic baggage.   Such celebrations can involve many different types of social ceremonies and rituals.  And atheistic Wiccans can preform ceremonial activities in sacred circles.  One might cast a circle against woo, summon the various cognitive and practical virtues, and so on.  But it seems best to leave the details of such practices to Wiccan groups.

Even if a woo-free Wicca is possible, it is hardly clear that it can ever happen.  There seems to be a culture of woo in Wicca.  Book after book, website after website, presents wishful, confused, and delusional thinking.  Since none of that is essential, it is tragic.  The depth of woo in Wicca is likely to lead either to its degeneration into New Age nonsense or to its social collapse as its new practicioners find that the woo accomplishes nothing.  And as Wicca grows, the woo is surely going to attract the critical attention of other religious groups as well as scientists and skeptics.  Wicca may die of woo.  And that would be deeply unfortunate, since it would mean the death of an alternative to Abrahamic religion in the West.  Anyone interested in seeing alternatives to the dominant Abrahamic religions in the United States ought to encourage Wicca to get real, get serious, get clean.


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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.

  • ACN

    I don’t understand the remarks you’ve made about palingenesis. What does it mean for self to be reborn as a counterpart in another universe?

    There is no evidence that this idea is true, and in fact, a weight of evidence that once I die, the arrangement/thing I think of now as “me”, doesn’t stay with the meat, and moreover, it doesn’t go elsewhere. With brain death, it’s simply gone.

    To claim that Godel’s argumenst gives any justification for this idea of the self-rebirth, much less an EMPIRICAL justification, strains credibility.

    Unless, of course, I misunderstand you (and based on your word choice, I don’t think it would be my fault) and by re-birth of self you mean something closer to what Sagan meant when he remarked that we’re all starstuff.

    • Daniel Fincke

      There is no evidence that this idea is true, and in fact, a weight of evidence that once I die, the arrangement/thing I think of now as “me”, doesn’t stay with the meat, and moreover, it doesn’t go elsewhere. With brain death, it’s simply gone.

      No, he’s not saying the arrangement goes anywhere. I think the idea is that if what you are is a certain kind of arrangement that same kind of arrangement could get constituted again, in another possible universe. Like, think Star Trek and the teleportation. Technically for that to happen, your atoms would have to be disassembled where you are and created elsewhere. But if the same combinations of atoms (or a set extremely similar in relevant respects to your present ones) were all assembled elsewhere that would be you again.

      This all depends though on the belief that all possible worlds are actualized, which I have a hard time accepting but which some influential philosophers make arguments for.

    • Eric Steinhart

      Palingenesis says that the pattern that is you has appeared once; it can reappear again, and it will appear again. If not in our universe, then in future universes derived from our universe.

      The support for Godel’s type of palingenesis is indeed weak. But so what? It does not conflict with anything in science. Here you are free to go with a weakly supported theory. And you haven’t given any argument against it. If you think that there are no future universes in which your life-pattern would be repeated (with improvements, Godel says), then you are free to give your opposing arguments.

    • Daniel Fincke

      The support for Godel’s type of palingenesis is indeed weak. But so what?

      Affirming propositions more strongly than their evidence warrants and then attaching to them religiously—with all the commitment and deep psychological connections that that entails, is precisely what’s wrong with believing things by faith. It is intrinsically wrong epistemologically and can lead to specific harms that come from not proportioning belief and practice to evidence.

    • Eric Steinhart

      So affirm it weakly. A weakly justified hypothesis, in the absence of better competitors, is still the best hypothesis around. There’s no reason whatsoever (and it would indeed be wrong) to grant any greater epistemic status to Godel’s theory. It’s weak; affirm it proportionally to its justification. You are, after all, free to grant varying degrees of assent to propositions.

    • Daniel Fincke

      You are, after all, free to grant varying degrees of assent to propositions.

      Sure, but I worry about how binding it up with the other dimensions of religious practice make it hard to keep one’s assent to propositions related to the religion sufficiently tempered.

  • B. T. Newberg

    After reading far too many of these essays, and reaching the conclusion here, I can’t see what this whole project even has to do with Wicca. Based on these six things you claim to get out of Wicca, there is only the most superficial relationship to Wicca, and nothing you can’t get elsewhere.

    1. Ultimate Deity. Plenty of other religions feature this, and Wicca doesn’t even emphasize it. So why Wicca?

    2. God and Goddess. If you’re going to understand these two as symbols, and then give those symbols your own unique referents (will and reason), then there’s no reason you can’t do that with any other pantheon of deities. So why Wicca?

    3. Wheel of the Year. This may be your strongest connection to Wicca, but you can also get this from naturalistic Pantheism. For example, Paul Harrison’s book The Elements of Pantheism has a whole section on naturalistic phenomena that occur around the times of the sabbats that can be celebrated as natural wonders. Alternatively, you don’t need to get the wheel from any religions at all. You can just look at the solar cycle objectively and declare solstices, equinoxes, and the mid-points between them as your special days, with the pragmatic bonus that it lets you celebrate at the same time that others of other faiths are also celebrating. So why Wicca?

    4. Reincarnation. If the kind of rebirth you talk about is what you’re after, and you say it’s done better by Theravada Buddhism, then why haven’t you gone after Theravada Buddhism instead of Wicca? Or why not just justify rebirth based on Kurt Goedel? So why Wicca?

    5. Personal activities. Every religion offers these, and the specific ones you mention are offered by more than just Wicca. So why Wicca?

    6. Social activities. Again, same as for 5. Every religion offers these. So why Wicca?

    Given these points, the whole project seems to have almost nothing to do with Wicca. All the effort you’ve put into it seems to betray some other motivation for singling out Wicca for your analysis and criticism.

    If you *like* Wicca and want to create an atheistic tradition of your own within it, fine. More power to you. However, the tone of all these articles suggests that you are evaluating Wicca by some principle higher than subjective preference.

    That leaves the reader feeling that Wicca has been manhandled and abused in service of some other agenda.

    • Daniel Fincke

      I don’t think Wicca’s been manhandled and abused in the service of a larger agenda. You’re right there is no necessary connection between Wicca and the atheistic nature religion Eric was hypothesizing. I especially agree that the ultimate deity is such a generic immanent deity concept that it is hardly distinctively Wiccan.

      I don’t think Eric was saying that Wicca or atheistic metaphysics were necessarily linked but that they could find systematic parallels that could allow for fruitful discussions between atheists and Wiccans that went beyond atheists just calling Wicca woo and being done with it. Atheists could find ways to reason within Wicca’s own terms and on common ground in order to persuade Wiccans to make their religion more rational. Atheists could explore Wicca as just a particular model for various naturalistic, non-Abrahamic celebrations, practices of askesis, etc.

      I don’t think there had to be a necessary association between atheism and Wicca for Eric to say, “These are two fast rising groups, with some overlapping and contrasting aims, so how can atheists help Wiccans become more rationalist and how can Wiccans help atheists piece together a non-Abrahamic nature-religion for those whose minds are best served by various kinds of religious practices?”

  • Gareth

    The thing is once you eliminate all the myth within Wicca what you’re essentially left with is a kind of non-denominational Paganism. Whilst I can admire Eric Steinhart’s attempt I think he has suffered from the (the all too common)problem of available literature not being particularly good. From what I’ve seen much of the literature used falls into the “fluffy bunny”/American Wicca category.

    • Eric Steinhart

      You’re right. But I don’t care much about atheistic Wicca. My concern is to think about what an atheistic nature-religion might take from a woo-free or de-mythologized Wicca.

    • Artor

      I think you’re right there. I became an atheist at age 13, having spent time in a Catholic school and reading the Bible. That about did it for me. At 20, I studied Joseph Campbell’s work on myth and discovered Paganism. I flirted with Wicca for a while, but I couldn’t reconcile it with my core atheism, so I now consider myself a Pagan Atheist. Gods and spirits have no existence outside the human mind, but they can be useful filters to view the universe through, and ritual can be a handy way of consciously accessing the unconscious mind.

  • B. T. Newberg

    >I don’t think there had to be a necessary association between atheism and Wicca for Eric to say, “These are two fast rising groups, with some overlapping and contrasting aims, so how can atheists help Wiccans become more rationalist and how can Wiccans help atheists piece together a non-Abrahamic nature-religion for those whose minds are best served by various kinds of religious practices?”

    Daniel, is that a direct quote from one of these posts? Which one?

    Eric, would you say this accurately sums up your goals in writing this series?

    • Eric Steinhart

      @BTNewberg – Yes, that’s a pretty good summary.

      The last post in the series is “On Atheistic Religion”.

  • B. T. Newberg

    >[This is the next to last post in my long series on atheism and Wicca.]

    By the way, has the final post in the series come out yet?

  • B. T. Newberg

    >but that they could find systematic parallels that could allow for fruitful discussions between atheists and Wiccans that went beyond atheists just calling Wicca woo and being done with it.

    I’m afraid I just find it very hard to agree with you here. That sounds like a fantastic aim, but in practice I see no reaching out for “fruitful discussion” with Wiccans in this series, and no attempt to improve of the image of Wiccans in the eyes of atheists. Steinhart calls the reasoning behind the Wiccan God and Goddess “perverse” and “immoral” (see Critizing Wicca: The God and Goddess). Whatever you might think of the reasoning, using that kind of language leaves no room for mistake: Wiccans are not being reached out to, nor are they being respected in the slightest, and their image is definitely not being improved in the eyes of atheists.

    Have you and Eric considered the effect this series might have on the Wiccan culture, which it uses to make its points for the sake of atheist nature-religion? There is a disturbing pattern at work here, which closely resembles an all-too-familiar pattern from the Colonial age.

    If it’s true, as Steinhart affirmed, that one aim was to “help Wiccans become more rationalist”, then that sounds a lot like an attempt to civilize the savages. The other aim, to see “what an atheistic nature-religion might take from a woo-free or de-mythologized Wicca” sounds a lot like cultural appropriation.

    It is possible of course for cultures to share their traditions, and for one to model theirs on the other’s, in a non-exploitative way. It is also possible to hope the other culture will learn something from yours, in a non-Imperialistic way. But this series distorts the image of Wicca by picking and choosing what suits Steinhart’s agenda for an atheistic nature-religion, emphasizing the Ultimate Deity where it is hardly emphasized at all in Wicca. In this way it creates a false impression of Wicca, a sort of “noble savage” image of wow-if-only-we-could-be-like-them even though they are not really like that, in order to prop up an atheist agenda. Finally, it condemns Wicca itself with language of “perversion” and “immorality” – as if the Wiccans, noble though they may be, are still poor misguided souls without atheists to help them see the light. It’s disheartening to see this Colonial pattern still at work today in 2012.

    Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think all this was done in an intentionally malicious way, and I don’t think that the cause ought to be forsaken. There *are* good ways for cultures to learn from each other and share their traditions. I just think you guys need to seriously reconsider how you are going about it.

    May I recommend starting with dialogue instead. There are many atheistic Wiccans and Pagans already. Perhaps you could engage them, and ask what they have found are the parallels and methods of reasoning that allow a fruitful syncretism between the two. Perhaps you could also dialogue with theistic Wiccans, asking what they get out of their religion, and why they reason the way they do. There is no need to agree with their conclusions or methods of reasoning, or withhold alternative explanations, but at least you’d get a more authentic sense of what produces the fulfillment they derive from their culture and practices. Then perhaps you’d be in a better position to try to create structures that produce similar fulfillment for atheists (if that is one of your goals).

    So please don’t misconstrue the aims of my criticism here. I too am an atheist, at least in practical terms, and I too would love to see an atheistic spirituality inspired by what can be learned from Pagan paths. As such a person, I feel the need to speak up when it seems relations between atheism and Paganism are in danger of being damaged.

  • Eric Steinhart

    On the one side, the atheists accuse me of going too easy on the Wiccans; on the other side the Wiccans accuse me of going too hard.

    Yes, it’s too bad, but there are aspects of Wiccan belief and especially practice that are going to come in for even rougher treatment as Wicca becomes more visible.

    I’d like to see all religions, including Wicca, become more rational. And that means Wiccans need to make some changes.

  • B. T. Newberg

    It’s true that anyone entering the arena of religious criticism needs to develop thick skin. But that is no excuse for blatantly judgmental language like “perversion” and “immorality.” It works against you. Not only does it discourage genuine dialogue, but it undermines your credibility as a rationalist. You say all religions should become more rational. But why should they, when the example you set is equally subjective? Accusations of perversion and immorality are value judgments, not rational evaluations.

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  • Jennifer

    This might help, just thinking that it’s a variant of wicca.

  • JP

    Interesting reading.
    I’ve been Wiccan for twenty years, however its only recently that I’ve started to see people writing about what I call “the hocus-pocus factor” in Wicca (and other variations), who are looking for alternatives. I have always had a problem with what I considered wilful ignorance of the purpose of the symbols in the various traditions.

    Personally I don’t require the depth of philosophy and scientific explanation you have gone to, but I can also see that, to be able to talk about it with others, as you want to, you might need to be thorough.

    It seems to me that the concept of Atheistic Wicca *does* need exploring and maybe even defining (I may even join the exploration as it evolves).

    However, I can’t agree with Eric Steinhart, because I can accept (and even embrace) that the “crazy” is really part of the human condition. It’s empirical fact. Because it’s empirical fact and part of the human “hypo-nous”, it needs to be addressed and accepted into the concept of Atheistic Wicca. Like him, I too think rationality is important, however the irrational is also part of the equation and must not be ignored. Doing so would be ignoring data in your experiment because it was inconvenient.

    Let us *not* fear ourselves as we explore and examine a religion that fully embraces the exploration of self.