[This is part of a series looking at atheism and Wicca.]
Many Wiccans practice magic. Skeptics, rationalists, and naturalists may all be tempted to try to use science to refute the effectiveness of magic. Although such refutations do persuade some people, they often fail to accomplish anything: despite the best efforts of scientific debunkers, magical thinking persists and flourishes.
Another way to think about magic is ethically. Wicca contains an ethical maxim known as the Wiccan Rede: if it harms none, do what you will. The most reasonable way to interpret the Rede is this: if an act causes no harm, then it is permissible; if an act causes harm, then it is forbidden. It will be argued that Wiccans cannot ethically offer or use any type of magic that has not met the highest standards of empirical justification.
As a term of art, say a practice is sound if and only if its reliability has been certified by evidence which meets the same epistemic standards as the evidence used to make our best technologies. A practice is unsound otherwise. Since magical spells are practices (they are procedural activities intended to produce external effects), they can be evaluated for their soundness or unsoundness. Our best technologies are sound; when we use them, they sometimes fail – they cause damage. But that damage is not moral harm. Moral harm is damage done by an ethically impermissible or forbidden act.
If there were any sound spells, then they would just be examples of our best technical practices. They would not be spells anymore (except perhaps through historical association). For instance, if some herb were used in some Wiccan ritual, and the herb reliably did produce the claimed effects, at the same level of reliability used for any ethically permitted medical treatment, then the practice of using that herb would simply enter into standard medicine. I am not aware of a single Wiccan spell that has ever been tested for its effectiveness or reliability; there are no known sound Wiccan spells.
Offering Sound Spells. Suppose, contrary to present fact, that there were some sound Wiccan spells. If a writer offers a sound spell, then that offering meets the highest standard of rational practice. Offering such a spell is merely describing one of our best technologies. To offer it is consistent with the rationality of the writer, so that it causes no harm to the writer as a rational animal. If somebody suffers some negative consequences as the result of using a sound spell which the writer offered, then the writer could not have done any better – the writer has met the highest epistemic standards – so the writer is not morally responsible for that suffering, and has caused no harm to others. Since offering a sound spell causes no harm, it is permitted by the Wiccan Rede.
Offering Unsound Spells. As far as I know, there are no sound Wiccan spells; all Wiccan spells are unsound. Now consider the ethical aspects of offering an unsound spell. If a writer offers an unsound spell, then the writer is causing harm both to himself or herself and to others who may perform it.
Harm Caused to the Self. First, consider how the writer is causing harm to himself or herself. If the writer offers an unconfirmed spell, then he or she is violating his or her obligation to his or her own rationality; he or she does violence to his or her own reason. But reason is that which is most sacred within any person; to harm your own reason is to harm the sacred depth of your own nature. To do violence to what is most sacred within yourself is to cause the deepest possible harm to yourself. It is to cause yourself ontological harm.
Harm Caused to Others. Second, consider how the writer of an unsound spell causes harm to others. If somebody suffers some negative effects as the result of using an unsound spell which the writer offered, then the writer is responsible for that suffering, so that the writer has caused harm to others. The negative effects can include everything from mere disappointment to loss of life. Because the writer did not do his or her best to prevent possible negative effects, the mere possibility of negative effects is sufficient for this harm.
Since offering an unsound spell is harmful both to the one who offers it and to the ones to whom it is offered, it is forbidden by the Wiccan Rede.
As an illustration of the harm caused by offering an unsound spell, consider the spell for attracting money offered by Cunningham (2004: 23-24). By presenting and advocating magic like this, Cunningham is putting people in harm’s way. He is exposing people to risk and ruin. His money spell might tempt a weak-minded person into spending money that he or she does not have, on the unconfirmed belief that playing with candles and herbs will bring needed funds later. Such weak-minded person has thus been exposed to financial risk and perhaps led to financial ruin. It is immoral for Cunningham to present his spell without any evidence for its effectiveness. It causes harm by exposing people to risk.
Using Sound Spells. Now consider somebody who uses the spells presented in Wiccan books. Suppose that, contrary to present fact, there were some sound spells. If a person uses a sound spell, then that use meets the highest standard of rational practice, including the highest ethical standards. To use the spell is ethically permissible; any damage that arises from using it is morally acceptable (it is not moral harm). The use of a sound spell is morally equivalent to the use of some technology that has met the highest standards of testing. Sound technologies sometimes fail; when they do, those failures are unfortunate but not morally harmful. The use of a sound spell is consistent with the rationality of the one who uses it; there is no violation of rationality. And if others are damaged by the failure of a sound spell, the person who performs it is not responsible for that damaged, so that the person performing the spell has not morally harmed others. Since using a sound spell is not harmful, it is permitted by the Wiccan Rede.
Using Unsound Spells. As far as I know, there are no sound Wiccan spells; all Wiccan spells are unsound. Now consider the ethical aspects of using an unsound spell. If a person performs an unsound spell, then the performer is causing harm both to himself or herself and to others who may be affected by that performance.
Harm Caused to Self. If a person performs or uses an unsound spell, then by that use that person does violence to his or her own reason. To use the spell is to do violence to that which is most sacred in any rational animal. If you use such a spell, you do violence to the sacred depths of your own nature; you therefore cause yourself ontological harm.
Harm Caused to Others. If a person performs an unsound spell, and if others are harmed by its failure, then the one who performed that spell is responsible for that harm, so the performer has harmed others. The mere possibility of failure is sufficient for this harm.
Since performing an unsound spell is harmful both to the one who performs it and to any others affected by its performance, it is forbidden by the Wiccan Rede.
On the one hand, if a spell is sound, then Wiccans (and others) are permitted to offer it or to use it. Such a spell is merely part of our best technology. On the other hand, if a spell is not sound, then Wiccans (and others) are forbidden to offer or to use it.
Since at present there are no sound spells, it is inconsistent for Wiccans to either offer or perform such spells. It is unethical and it ought not to be done. It must be stressed that the mere possibility of harm makes the offering and use of spells unethical. Those who offer or who perform such spells place people in harms way. And that’s wrong.
Cunningham, S. (1988) Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner. St. Paul, MI: Llewellyn Publications.