Criticizing Wicca: Magic

This is a guest post by Eric Steinhart.

[Magic is a pseudo-technology based on the pseudo-science of mysterious energy.  It’s purpose is to provide the illusion of control.  This post briefly describes how some Wiccans conceive of magic.  Many Wiccans reject the use of magic altogether, or consider it entirely independent of Wicca.  Thus the two should not be confused.  After this brief presentation, the next two posts will offer a cognitive and then ethical criticisms of magic.]

Many Wiccan books extensively discuss magic.  They offer many definitions of magic (e.g. Buckland, 1986: 222-223; Sabin, 2011: 195-196).  Cuhulain offers these definitions from other authors: “Magic is a joyous exceptional experience which leads to a sense of well-being.”; “Magic is the science of the control of the secret forces of nature.”; “Magic is a comprehensive knowledge of all nature.”; “Magic is the art of affecting changes in consciousness at will” (2011: 27).  And Cunningham defines it like this: “Magic is the projection of natural energies to produce needed effects” (2004: 21).

These definitions are so vague that they are useless.  The only way to understand it is to proceed by the way of example.  Magic is a catalog of spells.  A spell is a procedure or algorithm: “A spell is a set of actions done in a specific sequence to manifest your intent. . . . it is a recipe to bring about change” (Sabin, 2011: 197).  Thus Wiccan magic includes the spells listed in Wiccan books.  It includes at least the spells presented in Farrar & Farrar (1981); Bucklands (1986); Cunningham (2004); Sabin (2011).

One of the main philosophical questions about magic is whether or not it has any reliability (that is, whether or not the spells included in Wiccan books have any effectiveness above chance).   Those who assert that spells do have such reliability are realists about magic.  Cunningham is a realist about magic.  He writes that “Magic is effective in causing manifestations of needed change.  This isn’t self-deception.  Correctly performed magic works, and no amount of explaining away alters this fact” (2004: 23).  Sabin writes that “Wiccans believe that magic is real, that it works” (2011: 29).

Cunningham illustrates the alleged effectiveness of magic as follows: “Say I need to pay a hundred-dollar phone bill but don’t have the money.  My magical goal: the means to pay the bill” (2004: 23).  To achieve this goal, he outlines a magical procedure (a spell).  The spell involves candles, herbs, paper, and ink.  Cunningham writes that the spell uses “a good selection of money-drawing herbs” (2004: 23), thus indicating that he believes that certain plants have powers to attract money to people.  After the spell is performed, “Within a day or two, perhaps a week, I’ll either receive unexpected (or delayed) money, or will satisfy other financial obligations in a manner that frees me to pay the bill.” (2004: 24).  Of course, Cunningham offers no data to justify this claim.  He does not offer a detailed list of trials of this money-spell along with its rate of success and failure.

The lists of spells in Wiccan books is enormous; spells are offered for allegedly changing almost any given situation in to almost any desired situation.  Sabin writes that there are spells “for things like finding a new job or protecting your home” (2011: 18).  It should be noted that spells include procedures for gaining information.

Life confronts everybody with practical problems (getting money, finding love, overcoming illness, protecting your house).  For many of these problems, luck plays a central role in the outcome.  When a person is confronted with such problems, magic enables the person to perform some easy operations.  The performance of these operations make it look like the person is using some skill to solve the problem.  Apart from its psychological effects on the person who performs it, magic has no influence at all on the solution to the problem.  Those who practice magic do not even bother to test its objective effectiveness.  The reason is simple: the purpose of magic is not to increase objective effectiveness.

Magic is a pseudo-technology based on the pseudo-science of energy.  Magic makes it appear as if an event that involves mainly chance is one that involves mainly skill.  The purpose of magic is entirely to produce the illusion of control: “By encouraging or allowing participants in a chance event to engage in behaviors that they would engage in were they participating in a skill event, one increases the likelihood of inducing a skill orientation, that is, one induces an illusion of control” (Langer, 1975: 313).

The illusion of control appears to be an adaptive illusion: “a nonveridical perception of control over an impending event reduces the aversiveness of that event. . . . A temporary loss of control is anxiety arousing.  A chronic feeling of no control is characterized by passivity and giving up in the face of failure” (Langer, 1975: 323).  The illusion of control may help people avoid learned helplessness (Langer, 1975: 325).   Learned helplessness is a defective and depressed condition of agency that results when a person comes to believe that their actions have no power to solve their problems.  Long fruitless searches for jobs, money, lovers, children, or social status may all produce learned helplessness; any activity that induces an illusion of control can counteract learned helplessness, and help a person to continue to act in the face of adversity generated by randomness or complexity.  Thus magic, by inducing illusions of control, can help people function.  It can make an agent more confident, and more willing to continue to try to solve a problem, rather than just giving up.   Thus magic may be beneficial for agency.

Unfortunately, the illusion of control is indeed illusory, and no rational person seeks self-deception.  Such self-deception can result in harmful consequences to the self and to others.  Any rational Wiccan will aim to avoid magic entirely.  Some Wiccans clearly separate the Wiccan religion from the practice of magic.   Buckland writes: “Witchcraft [Wicca] is first and foremost a religion.  Worship of the Lord and Lady is therefore the prime concern of the Witch.  Magick is secondary to that worship. . . . If all you want to do is to work magick, then you do not need to become a Witch to do it” (1986: 221; see 15).  Sabin writes: “If you’re exploring Wicca only so you can learn magic, don’t waste your time.  Wicca is a religion, and you don’t need it to do magic.  Magic exists outside of religion.  Wicca provides one of many paths to magical practice, but magic is not its central theme.  Some Wiccans don’t do magic at all” (2011: 23-24).  However, the Farrars (1981) and Cunningham (2004) do not seem to clearly separate Wicca from magic.  And many Wiccan books seem to focus very little on the religion and very much on magic.


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. (2004) Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner.  St. Paul, MI: Llewellyn Publications.

Farrar, J. & Farrar, S. (1981) A Witches Bible.  Blaine, WA: Phoenix Publishing.

Langer, E. (1975) The illusion of control.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 32 (2), 311-328.

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.


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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.

  • feralboy12

    My mother had spells. We had to take her to the hospital.

  • fredbloggs

    People want magic because their lives are frequently mundane and they feel they lack control. The extent to which they WANT something to be true should put them on their guard when it comes to evaluating how likely it IS to be true. Astrologers, mediums, religions all prey on peoples inability to recognise wishful thinking.

  • Gregory

    Magic, prayer, same thing. It is all about wishful thinking.

  • peicurmudgeon

    As Gregory says – prayer or spells, they are different names for the same thing. Sometimes they can make a person feel better about their situation, or give them a psuchological boost, but that’s it.

  • Laurance

    “Witchcraft [Wicca] is first and foremost a religion. Worship of the Lord and Lady is therefore the prime concern of the Witch,” says Buckland.

    This “witchcraft=wicca/wicca=witchcraft” business squicks me. It’s an Anglo-American conceit, and a 20th century concoction.

    Witchcraft a religion? Not in other cultures!

    DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT go on to one of the reservations of the Iroquois Confederation and announce in a chipper and cheery voice, “I’m a Witch!” The Indian People there do NOT see witches as innocent, happy people dancing in the moonlight worshipping The Goddess, or the Lord and Lady, or whatever deity your particular coven worships.

    Witches are seen as dangerous, malevolent people.

    Some eleven or twelve years ago there was a horrific murder. Our friend was killed. The Indian People were terrified. A witch had been seen throwing herbs at the burning house. The family had the victim cremated and hid the ashes. They were afraid that if he were buried, the witches would come and take soil from his grave and use it to bind his spirit and enslave him and do baleful magic.

    The Medicine Woman was concerned about the extent to which fear had gripped the people. She was making an effort to put a stop to all this “witchcraft” fearmongering and get people to calm down.

    This perception of witchcraft as dangerous and malevolent magic happens elsewhere as well: India, Africa, South America, for example.

    I myself see Wicca (a word usually mispronounced, BTW) as kind of on a par with Discordianism, the Church of the Subgenius, or the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the difference being that the Wiccans take themselves far, far too seriously and actually believe their own stuph.

    • Marnie

      I myself see Wicca (a word usually mispronounced, BTW)

      How do you pronounce it? The top hit in google for “how to pronounce wicca” offers three different recordings that all sound the same to me.