What do pagans believe?

In the age of the Internet, what do those sometimes entertaining, often overlooked, free weekly tabloids do to be independent and different from everything else out there? One way is by exploring offbeat subjects that will get overlooked for various reasons in the main paper or television news broadcast.

For example, The Portland Tribune, a free newspaper published twice a week in Oregon’s largest city, ran a 1,500-word article on Wicca that was appropriately timed for Halloween. October 31 happens to be the day Wiccans hold a celebration akin to New Year’s Day.

I do not make the Portland Tribune part of my regular reading, nor do I have Wicca on my Google News alerts list. Reader Dan Grover submitted the article to us and was not all that impressed. He appropriately noted that there is a lot about what Wicca is not and not many facts about Wicca.

I tend to agree, and would like to add that the article focused heavily on how the religion, if you can call it a religion, has been heavily persecuted in the past. Those stereotypes continue, the article tells us, and gives a few examples of those who have been persecuted. Wicca is growing in popularity, but we are never told why. Just that if you join Wicca, you should be prepared to be discriminated against, but for no reason at all because Wiccans’ beliefs are so benign that just about anyone could embrace them, including me:

Many witches practice their craft alone, and with no central, organizational body for witches, the exact number of witches in Portland is unknown.

They may no longer be burned at the stake, but once “out of the broom closet,” witches might lose their jobs, be physically attacked or have their property vandalized.

When McSweeney opened her brick-and-mortar store, Triple Aspect Herbs, in Beaverton, she had a great relationship with her landlady, but not with some of her landlady’s customers.

“They boycotted her store and threatened to continue the boycott until she stopped renting to ‘evil witches,’” McSweeney says. “They made assumptions about me — what I believed, what I do — based on pure hearsay. Invariably their objections involved the words ‘devil worship,’ and the threat that I was going to hell.”

It is not very helpful to a journalist that McSweeney wouldn’t go into her beliefs, but then again, as the article says, there is no central organization or beliefs for Wicca, so why bother trying to account for it? Well, since this Wikipedia article told me more about Wicca than the Tribune‘s piece, I think it is fair to ask a journalist to discuss at least a thing or two regarding Wiccans’ beliefs. Since when do alternative newspapers attempt to force their subjects into the mainstream of normalcy? I don’t want to read about how Wicca is oh so normal. I expect to read about its more offbeat characteristics.

wiccaTake, for instance, these paragraphs, describing McSweeney’s beliefs:

A witch, McSweeney says, is someone who takes complete responsibility for her beliefs, the choices she makes and the actions she takes. “I’ve had many students voice surprise at just how much is involved with being a witch. It goes far beyond what you see on ‘Charmed’ or ‘The Craft’ or in many of the books in Barnes & Noble.

“Being a witch is a way of life to me, not a hobby or a label,” she says. “It is about living your life in a conscious way, combining your energies with those of the world around you on a daily basis.”

So, being a witch is being responsible for what you believe in, your choices and actions, a lot of involvement in something, a way of life, not a hobby or label, living life consciously and combining energies with the world — and doing this daily, no less. Um, great. That sounds like me, except what the heck does “combining energies with the world” mean? Am I a witch? I regularly combine my energies with the world in a biological sense.

Rather than focusing on witches in the community who are not afraid to talk about it, why not go a bit deeper and explain the actual beliefs of witches and other modern pagan believers? What exactly are those things that take a lot of involvement? Watching Monday Night football? I do that too.

The article also fails to explain the rise in Wicca’s popularity. A tmatt column from a year ago suggests that the growing popularity of Wicca is because of people’s desire to go against secularism and search for a way to connect with nature.

But the Tribune piece goes a step further and makes an effort to explain how Wicca is oh so similar to Christianity in that there are many “paths within Wicca and witchcraft” just “as there are many Christian denominations.” The Wiccan Rede, a Golden Rule of sorts, even resonates with the central teachings of other religions, including Christianity!

So what’s so alternative about Wicca?

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  • http://www.larry-bernard.blogspot.com Larry Bernard

    except what the heck is “combining energies with the world”
    It has to do with a odd view of Karma. They view your actions as energy in the universe

  • Dennis Colby

    Apparently the “Wiccan Rede” also mandates improper use of the archaic second-person plural. But anyway. . .

    I would suggest this is an illustration of what ye GetReligion bloggers have noted many times: the press – even the alternative press – is not so much hostile to religion as it is mistaken about religion.

    The governing assumption of the secular press is not that “religion is bad,” but that “religion is good, as long as all religions recognize they’re all teaching roughly the same thing.” Thus the seeming lack of interest on the reporter’s part about what it is Wiccans actually, you know, do and believe. All that’s beside the point, because they do it by themselves and don’t make a fuss about it, which is kind of what a lot of reporters expect all religious believers to do.

    That aside, I will renew my usual objections to the fact-checking in virtually every single piece on paganism or witchcraft that appears in any media outlet whatsoever. I counted 10 factual errors, most without any kind of attribution (so “Wiccan” is an “old Celtic term,” eh?).

    It was also interesting to read in the same article that Wicca is “not a dogmatic faith” and then to read examples of dogma, like the fact that Satan is nowhere mentioned in the religion. How does one be non-dogmatic and dogmatic at the same time? It sounds exhausting.

  • http://www.draknet.com/proteus Judy Harrow

    OK, friends, I need to let you know I’m here. I’ve been a Wiccan High Priestess (that means I lead a coven) for 27 years now, and I think your questions are entirely fair.

    Yes, it is a religion. To use some big words, Wicca is immanence-based and polytheistic. That means that we perceive that Sacred Spirit lives within and gives life to the material world, and manifests in many forms. Some of us are pantheist, others are panentheist; most just don’t get that deeply into formal theology. Most of us focus our worship on Mother Earth without denying the reality of other Sacred manifestations.

    We are non-dogmatic in that we feel the Spirit is ultimately beyond human understanding or definition, so good hearted people may perceive the Sacred differently. There’s no reason for people to kill, or even diss, each other for things where we are all really just taking our best guess.

    Our ritual cycle is based around eight evenly-spaced festivals: the solstices and equinoxes, plus the four “cross-quarters” that come halfway between them.

    Our core ethic, called the “Wiccan Rede” says “an it harm none, do what ye will.” And yes, I know that is bad, pseudo-archaic grammar. The first generation (mid-20th century and mostly British) seemed to like that patina of antiquity. I don’t personally go for quaint, but the underlying concepts make sense to me.

    We are fast-growing. Lots of theories why, but they are all really just speculations.

    And we are indeed still subject to a lot of misunderstanding and some discrimination. For example, some of our people who have died in Afghanistan and Iraq have not been permitted to have our symbol, the pentacle, on their grave markers in military cemeteries. Americans United — whom you recently and rightfully praised for their fairness — filed a lawsuit over that issue just today.

    If you want more information, please check out my coven’s website. I’d also be happy to answer any specific questions any of you might have. Thanks for fair listening!

  • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog.html Jason Pitzl-Waters

    The problem is that religion writers often don’t “get” religion (even if that religion is “alternative”). You know, that would make a nice name for a blog…but seriously folks…

    So what’s so alternative about Wicca then?

    This writer like many journalists who tackle the subject of modern Paganism (and many inexperienced Pagan interviewees) often decide to compare us to Christianity (it being the largest faith in America) for a frame of reference. If the journalist is generally well-disposed to our faiths then we are compared benignly, if not, then the scorn drips freely.

    For example:

    “that the article focused heavily on how the religion, if you can call it a religion”

    Modern Paganism is an umbrella that encompasses several faiths (including Wicca), and they are I assure you real live religions. With beliefs and theologies and everything. Some are even downright “conservative” in their way of approaching their form of modern Paganism. But as to what is so “alternative”, well, the journalist dropped the ball there. But I assure you that careful study of different modern Pagan faiths will bear all sorts of fruits on why we are so different from the dominant monotheisms. I could even suggest some books if you’d like.

    Its funny though, I blog all the time about how the press covers modern Paganism (that would be poorly for the most part), and I’m always excited when non-Pagan blogs notice this, but inevitably I’m disappointed that your criticisms steer in this direction:

    “Since when do alternative newspapers attempt to force their subjects into the mainstream of normalcy? I don’t want to read about how Wicca is oh so normal. I expect to read about it’s more off-beat characteristics.”

    Frankly, modern Pagans are tired of being the media’s freakshow every Halloween (well, most of us anyway). So it has been learned through painful experience not to trust the press to do right by us. So you’ll often get superficial platitudes instead of the “off-beat” stuff because we don’t want to see another Pagan get fired, or lose their kids, or get their store burned down, or get “holy” salt thrown at them by Catholic youth. There is no pay-off for your average Pagan to talk in-depth about practice and belief. If a reporter wants more, there are experts, scholars, and elders in our faiths ready to be talked to. But that takes determination and effort, effort most journalists looking for a good Halloween Witch story can’t be bothered to bother with.

    There is so much here to comment on, that I think I may just tackle this tomorrow on my own blog.

  • Mattk

    (tmatt and others: This is super off topic. I apologize and completely understand if you delete this post.)

    Jason, Thanks for explaing that Pagan is an umbrella term. That helps me a lot. I don’t want to read a whole book, but could you recommend a website that can quickly diagram the sililarities and differences of the pagan religions? I’ve known four people who described themselves as pagans and each seemed to have very different beliefs about what gods were worshiped in paganism. One said there are no real gods, that the ancient pagan gods were just theomorphizations of different human characteristics, similar to Freud’s conception of god in “Society and its Discontents”, while another was a true polytheist, and the last two were monists who thought of their gods as expressions of the universe. (They were very into saying “all is one” and didn’t seem to understand when I used pagan philosophers [e.g. Plato, Aristotle] to show that all is not one.)
    The first two I understood. The latter two were beyond my comprehension. (I think we must have been talking past each other.) And the idea of them all calling themselves pagan was utterly confusing to me.


  • http://vogelbeere.livejournal.com Yvonne

    Like Jason, I have never seen a newspaper article that went into much depth about anything, especially Pagan beliefs. Even “quality” newspapers often fail to take us seriously, and even if they do, they often make gross factual errors (like the statement in the UK’s Guardian newspaper, circa 1993, that Wicca was exported from the US to the UK – wrong, it was the other way around).

    If you want a website that explains Pagan beliefs, you might like my Pagan theologies wiki, but please note that I only started it recently.

  • Dominic Glisinski

    “wicce”, the archaic for “witch”, hence “wicca” in modern parlance.
    I think the big draw that all forms of witchcraft exude is the promise of power and self determination. It can all be traced back to the original human failing “ye shall be as gods…” that continues to bribe us into circumventing God’s ways and means.
    Christianity is all about submission, giving up one’s self to God and relinquishing our right to call the shots for ourselves. “Ye are not your own, but are bought with a price”, and this is very grating to the human ego.
    I do not criticise those involved in witchcraft. They are doing what is “natural”, and damaging their own souls more than they hurt anybody else. However, it is in direct violation of God’s explicit commands in Scripture, it denies the very heart of Christian Faith, and sets the practitioner up as some sort of spiritual manipulator, even though the spiritual forces involved are of the satanic and dark variety. Playing with fire.
    I heard a radio inteview a while back on Christian radio that was just as vague and goofy as this print article dpulliam mentions seems to be. It seems like Christians are afraid to even talk about it for fear of catching witchcraft “cooties” or something. Give us the details.

  • Maureen

    The word “wicce” is Old English, it means “witch”, and it’s pronounced “witch-eh”. It’s feminine. The masculine is “wicca”, pronounced “witch-ah”, and means “wizard”.

    The religion is named “Wicca” because its founder, Mr. Gardner, was male (and presumably, didn’t like any of the already-available Old English nouns for his activities). “Wicca” is pronounced “wik-uh” by practitioners, because most of them aren’t interested in Old English as a language.

    Old English Made Easy provides a very nice online OE dictionary, so you can check my facts. :)

  • http://dpulliam.com dpulliam


    Thank you for your comment. You certainly educated me, and hopefully others, a bit about the intricacies of Paganism.

    You pointed out a criticism of mine towards the newspaper article that I should explain a bit better. I wasn’t calling for newspapers to write about paganism as a freakshow, rather, I wanted that particular writer to stop writing about it as if it were something I would be just as comfortable with as I am Christianity (since it is what I am most familiar with) because it happens to be just like it. I wanted to know how it was different…why it is thriving…what draws people to it.

    I’m glad to know though that there is more depth than this article was able to show us. I’ll be looking for your post.

  • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog.html Jason Pitzl-Waters


    “Wicca” is pronounced “wik-uh” by practitioners, because most of them aren’t interested in Old English as a language.

    Of course language isn’t a static thing (never has been). So no, the Old English pronunciation isn’t the same as the modern usage. But while you are on the subject, could you post something on a Boston Celtics fan page about how the “c” in Celtics should really be pronounced “Kelitcs”? That has been bugging me for years now!

    But I’m sure you posted this out of concern for our linguistic purity, and not to take a cheap shot right?

  • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog.html Jason Pitzl-Waters

    “They were very into saying “all is one” and didn’t seem to understand when I used pagan philosophers [e.g. Plato, Aristotle] to show that all is not one.”

    Thats interesting considering monism was very much a going concern to the neoplatonists of pagan Rome (it even influenced some important Christian thinkers). So “all is one” is hardly outside the scope of modern Pagan theology. Your confusion could easily be applied to an outsider looking at ancient Rome where hard polytheists, agnostics who saw the gods as metaphor, and monists all interacted and often participated in the same ceremonies.

    “could you recommend a website that can quickly diagram the sililarities and differences of the pagan religions?”

    I can’t think of one off the top of my head. At least not one easily digestible to an outsider. You could visit the Pagan Theologies Wiki:
    http://pagantheologies.pbwiki.com/ (of which I am a contributor), but it has just started and may not answer all your questions.

  • http://www.draknet.com/proteus Judy Harrow

    Hi, all

    Mattk wrote:
    the last two were monists who thought of their gods as expressions of the universe. (They were very into saying “all is one” and didn’t seem to understand when I used pagan philosophers [e.g. Plato, Aristotle] to show that all is not one.)
    The first two I understood. The latter two were beyond my comprehension. (I think we must have been talking past each other.) And the idea of them all calling themselves pagan was utterly confusing to me.

    Judy responds:
    OK, since I’m pretty much like your last two friends, I’ll try. But please remember that most Pagans are not philosophically or theologically inclined: what unites us is values and practices. It’s very understandable that this might look like vagueness to you and others.

    What I actually believe is that the ultimate nature of Deity is not knowable to the human mind or imagination, because it is so much bigger than we are and because we (and all the rest of the material world) are completely subsumed within it. So it’s the Great Mystery — and, in my particular branch of Wicca, we are advised not to speak of that which we cannot know.

    I’ll add to that that for me (and, history shows, for many others) it’s much easier to approach (worship, work with, or whatever verb you prefer) more concrete models.

    So the debate, among people like me, is whether particular Gods (or God-aspects, or God-forms) amount to the Mystery manifesting Itself to us in smaller and more comprehensible chunks or to humans constructing these images as a way of reducing the Ultimate to something we can deal with. Sort of like different colored “gels” placed over the intense lights in a theater.

    The trouble comes when people begin to think that their particular model or image *is* Deity, which means that differnt models used by different people are delusional at best, demonic at worst. I believe the Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart, had something to say about that.

    Also, different “filters” seem to work better for me in different phases of my life, or as I confront different issues.

    So that’s why I may be, on a very theoretical level, a monist, but in my day-to-day practice, I am a polytheist.

    I hope this helps clarify your question.

  • http://www.draknet.com/proteus Judy Harrow

    Hi, all

    Dominic wrote:
    I do not criticise those involved in witchcraft. They are doing what is “natural”, and damaging their own souls more than they hurt anybody else. However, it is in direct violation of God’s explicit commands in Scripture, it denies the very heart of Christian Faith, and sets the practitioner up as some sort of spiritual manipulator, even though the spiritual forces involved are of the satanic and dark variety. Playing with fire.

    Judy responds:
    So, your basic criticism of our religion is simply that it is not your religion. Do you also believe that all the other non-Christian religions of the world are satanic?

  • http://www.chasclifton.com/blogger.html Chas S. Clifton


    For overall information on Paganism, written by qualified scholars, I suggest the three books in the Pagan studies series from Rowman & Littlefield.

    (Disclaimer: one of the books is mine.)

    If you are going to AAR-SBL, stop by their booth!

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    The problem is that “pagan”” is a negative identifier, defined by exclusion. If someone says he is “Wiccan”, I have some idea of what he believes and does. If he says he is “pagan”, that only tells me what he is NOT. (Usually, making what amounts to a full-time occupation of NOT being Christian.) As a Cherokee commented on Magicknet, “If I wanted to define myself by what I am NOT, I might as well call myself NOt Tom Mix.”
    And Jason, if you do not like this, you could start by trying to get atheists to stop violating your “trademark” on the word. I am sure they will be as conciliatory and cooperative as they were with me.
    Oh,and if we consult a sociological atlas on the distribution of “religions”, we find that there are no more “pagans”, only “animists”.
    Even a talkshow MC would most likely ask a few things like “Do witches cast spells?” and “What is this business about flying brooms?” (giving a lead into the “jumping pole explanation”)
    (Bracing for the flamethrower barrage….)

  • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog.html Jason Pitzl-Waters

    “And Jason, if you do not like this, you could start by trying to get atheists to stop violating your “trademark” on the word. I am sure they will be as conciliatory and cooperative as they were with me.”

    Hence the capitalization when I refer to “Paganism” as an umbrella term for a group of similar religions (some prefer the term “Heathen”, and I see that get used in Europe quite a bit). When talking of everyone who isn’t a Christian/Jew/Muslim (or when talking about classical paganism) I use the small “p”. As for the atheists, I really have no dog in that hunt. If they want to call themselves “pagans” I’m sure it will cause more confusion for them than for us.

    “Oh,and if we consult a sociological atlas on the distribution of “religions”, we find that there are no more “pagans”, only “animists”.”

    Religious scholar Jordan Paper has long called for the “animists” to be re-classified as “polytheists”. Finding “animist” to be a reductionist term held over from colonial times that doesn’t do their individual faiths justice. I would propose the same for the modern Pagans except that not all modern Pagans are polytheists. The best “umbrella” term for the modern Paganism may be “Nature Religion”. Pagan academic Chas Clifton makes a good case for the term in his book “Her Hidden Children”. But until a new consensus if found within our widely diverse communities I’m sticking with “Pagan” as convenient short-hand.

  • http://www.chasclifton.com/blogger.html Chas S. Clifton

    Thanks for the book plug, Jason.

    One point that needs to be made repeatedly in this discussion is simply that Polytheistic. Religions. Are. Not. Creedal (or “credal,” if you prefer).

    If someone asks, “What do Wiccans believe?” that someone is only demonstrating complete ignorance of how polytheists and nature religionists function.

    The Canadian historian of religion Jordan Paper does devote a chapter in of his recent book The Gods Are Many to the misunderstanding of polytheism by monotheists. He makes that point, as have many other people.

    Instead, if you start by asking, “What do Wiccans (or other Pagans) do?” you will have a more fruitful conversation.

  • http://www.chasclifton.com/blogger.html Chas S. Clifton

    As long as I am on the topic of definition, another religions scholar, Michael York, in his book Pagan Theology (New York University Press, 2003) suggested that Paganism is “an affirmation of interactive and polymorphic sacred relationship by the individual or community with the tangible, sentient, and/or nonempircal.”

    If you break it down word by word, there is a lot there, and it can cover what is conventionally called animism as well as classical Paganism and contemporary Paganism.

    “Interactive relationships” is the key, I think.

    York also suggests in the same book that today “Paganism” is essentially a dialog “between different but related religious frameworks, one that affirms organic roots with the distant past but is equally commensurate with the vanguard of contemporary growth, change, and discovery.”

  • http://www.chasclifton.com/blogger.html Chas S. Clifton

    Apologies, I misstated the name of Jordan Paper’s book. It is The Deities Are Many: A Polytheistic Theology (SUNY Press, 2005).

  • Stephen A.

    “once “out of the broom closet,” witches might lose their jobs, be physically attacked or have their property vandalized.”
    Well, I’d really like to see some real, non-anecdotal factual evidience of this assertion, which is constantly made by Pagans. There may well be cases, but frankly, this is trotted out in the context of a new, improved “Burning Times” persecution that is supposedly widespread, which I just don’t see.

    Pagans are certainly ridiculed, especially the ones who didn’t get the memo about being “normal” and instead wear all black clothing, have jet black hair and lipstick (even the men). Many of them sure act and dress alike, and as noted, have an obsession with being Anti-Christian.

    About those beliefs not being “dogmatic,” Pagans I’ve known have made it VERY clear that there IS NO DEVIL, that there are TWO aspects of god, male and female, that a law of karma ABSOLUTELY exists, and that their is NO dogma or NO absolutes, and no one can definitively say when or where these beliefs came about. They just did, ex nihilo, and that’s it.

    The Wicca Rede is a great example of this. It’s from a purely modern source, and no such document or words seem to exist in ancient Paganism, or even medieaval paganism. Many will freely admit that their version of Wicca is invented out of whole cloth, and that this doesn’t bother them in the least.

    p.s. That video attached to the blog post is another GREAT example of non-informative pieces about Wicca that are out there. I learned nothing about this other than they like celtic music and seem to like nature and pentacles.

  • http://www.draknet.com/proteus Judy Harrow

    Hello, all

    Stephen A writes:
    About those beliefs not being “dogmatic,” Pagans I’ve known have made it VERY clear that there IS NO DEVIL, that there are TWO aspects of god, male and female, that a law of karma ABSOLUTELY exists, and that their is NO dogma or NO absolutes, and no one can definitively say when or where these beliefs came about. They just did, ex nihilo, and that’s it.

    Judy replies:

    Actually, most of us do not claim these things as absolute and literal facts, which is what “dogmatism” means to me. (Of course, it’s possible that I’m misunderstanding the term, but I think it’s equally possible that for you religious beliefs must be literal). Anyhow –

    1. Our religion does not include a specific personification of Evil, and we most certainly do not worship the Devil-figure of Christianity. There’s no particular reason why people who do not believe in the Bible should believe in the Devil.

    2. Wicca is one way of being Pagan; there are several others. Most, but not all, Wiccans, and certainly not all Pagans, use a duotheistic model of the Sacred, in which the material world is born of Their love. Other of us prefer a more “full-blown” polytheistic model, containing many Gods and Goddesses representing many different aspects of life. Since these are models, not facts (no dogma), these differences do not prevent us from recognizing each other as co-religionists.

    3. We use the term “karma” somewhat differently than our Hindu neighbors do. For us, it simply means that people must live with the outcomes of the choices they make and the actions they take. To my mind, this is a simple fact, but it’s about human life, not the nature of Deity.

    4. No dogma because (a) we are not one religion, but rather a cluster of closely related ones, like the various Christian denominations that have a wide variety of specific beliefs and (b) we tend to be much more orthoprax than orthodox — conformity of belief is not particularly valued by Pagans.

    5. If you want to explore the roots of these and other Pagan beliefs and practices, see Triumph of the Moon by Ronald Hutton (Oxford University Press). They didn’t all come from one source, nor develop all at the same time. They’d been kind of growing up within European culture for two centuries or so before Gerald Gardner created the synthesis that is modern Wicca in England in the mid-20th Century. Speaking only for myself, whether or not they help me connect with the Sacred and live a congruent life is much more important than how old they might be.

    and, finally, the reason you think we all dress funny is that the flamboyant minority are the ones you notice. Most of us hold normal jobs and blend in with our workmates and neighbors.

  • http://www.chasclifton.com/blogger.html Chas S. Clifton

    “Many will freely admit that their version of Wicca is invented out of whole cloth, and that this doesn’t bother them in the least.”

    And, so?

    Every religion has to be new at some time.

    Wicca happens to be the only world religion–and it is worldwide now (Brazil, India, Australia)–that started in England rather than Asia or the Middle East.

    I will make you a deal, “Stephen A.” Lay off the “new” part, and I will let you keep your Devil. Evidently he is a comfort to you, and I would not deny you one of your gods.

  • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog.html Jason Pitzl-Waters

    “Well, I’d really like to see some real, non-anecdotal factual evidience of this assertion…”

    Sure thing.

    Glastonbury Pagans attacked by Catholic youths:

    Pagan Store Burned Down:

    Pagan Posters Defaced on Campus:

    Ongoing Stonewalling of Honoring Pagan Vets:

    The above are all ongoing, or happened in the last couple months. But one of my all-time favorite stories of outright persecution has to be:

    Divorced Wiccan Couple Ordered to Not Teach Child Wicca (even Get Religion reported on that one):

    Those are just some recent “greatest hits” from my own blog archives. Intolerance and persecution do happen (sadly quite often). But Stephen, it sounds like you are already certain who the Pagans are and what we look like and how we dress. Perhaps there is a good reason you only meet the outwardly rebellious ones.

  • http://www.draknet.com/proteus Judy Harrow

    Actually, there was a very good article about the issue of Wiccan veterans’ grave markings in Chritianity Today.

  • kerner

    The State of Wisconsin has certainly recognized wicca as a religion. Our Department of Corrections has, as one of its prison chaplains, a witch on the state payrole. It’s the best argument for the separation of church and state I can think of.

  • Christopher W. Chase

    I too would echo the point that Pagan religions are much more orthopraxis-oriented than orthodoxy-oriented. The way one practices is much more important than the specific facts one believes. To a certain extent, this is true of many other religions, such as Hinduism, Shinto, Native American traditions and to a lesser extent, Judaism and Islam.

    When studying religions such as these, the better question to ask is “To Whom Do You Offer Sacrifice?” rather than “What do XYZ-ists believe?” That’s really a Protestant Christian framework, and as such it doesn’t work as a point of entry into many other religious traditions. Also, the former question is a better one because it shifts attention to sacred beings, rather than worshippers, which is a better place to start. If there is anything “alternative,” to mainline American Protestantism this might be it.

    But, in essence, despite newspaper and mass media articles, there is nothing ‘alternative’ about any particular religious path, simply because there is no normative center in the world. The three largest religions in the world are Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism. The largest missionary traditions are Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism. All these share much, but also have very large and real differences. All are very old traditions. Wicca, Druidry, Asatru, and Thelema (just to name four Pagan traditions) share some common characteristics, such as their relative newness. Some other non-Pagan traditions are also new but have had a significant impact in world religion—-Sikhism and Ba’hai, just to name two. One commonality between Pagan traditions is that they are often notoriously misrepresented on the WWW, so I would search for responsible, peer-reviewed scholarship on them, as found in journals such as Nova Religio, The Pomegranate, and in both the “Pagan Studies” book series mentioned earlier, as well as academic books from James R. Lewis, Jone Salomonsen, Ronald Hutton and others.

    Christopher W. Chase
    PhD Candidate
    Teaching Assistant – “Religion in America”
    American Studies Program
    Michigan State University.

  • http://www.geocities.com/hohjohn John L. Hoh, Jr.

    In the age of the Internet, what do those sometimes entertaining, often overlooked, free weekly tabloids do to be independent and different from everything else out there?

    I usually pick up the local weekly Shepherd Express in Milwaukee for a few laughs–and it’s easier on the eyes to read a paper than electrons. My church–Salem Lutheran–did some canvassing a few years ago. One lady thought we were a witch group because of our name, it didn’t look like much of anything happened, except on October 31 (which we ignorantly call Reformation). Ouch!

    Ironically in leading Bible class today a member said his sister couldn’t find enough witches nearby so she became a Wiccan. Someone asked what the difference was and in his explanation Wiccan is an organized religion that loves the earth and hugs trees and witches are more independent and like to cast spells. Maybe we need to study alternate “faiths” as a series sometime soon.

    Some sites to consider:

    Paganism/Wicca on Suite 101.com.
    Wicca/Witchcraft on Suite 101.com.

    It seems that there is a misperception of Witches, wiccan, paganism, etc. A more balanced or nuanced exploration of these movements is in order–although space constraints being what they are (and alternative newspapers have cost constraints just like “mainstream papers” do) I imagine an in-depth exploration isn’t possible. A daily paper could do a special series focus on this topic the week before the next Hallowe’en.

  • http://www.geocities.com/hohjohn John L. Hoh, Jr.

    I do have an eBook written by one of the Suite writers who is/was pagan and assembled a collection of her writings to explain Paganism/Wicca. Feel free to e-mail me at hohjohn@yahoo.com for a .pdf copy.

  • Maureen

    Actually, I posted it as an interesting linguistic oddity. When you think about it, a religion whose members called themselves “witches” should be all into pronouncing their religion as “Witch-ah”. But no. This is particularly curious, given that the “wicce”/witch-eh pronunciation seems to be quite easy for people to latch onto.

    You might also think that English speakers of today, if they were going to make up their own pronunciation, would pronounce it like the “cc” in “success”: “wik-sah”. But again, no. (Granted, this would be a little tricky to say on an “a” vowel ending for an English speaker. It would be a lot easier to say “wik-sess”.) :)

    I suspect that there’s a subconscious desire among English speakers to add a harder vowel sound to words about males. Since “wicca” means a male witch, a wizard, people reach for that hard K sound, even though “cc” pronounced as a K usually only shows up in completely foreign words, like “baccarat”. I suppose, however, that we may just have a lot more French speakers than Old English ones running about.

    Considering how touchy pagan folks tend to get about wording, right down to on spelling magic with a “ck”, I think it’s not unreasonable to point out a fundamental pronunciation error which would seem to have theological implications for you. Indeed, one would think that you would be far more concerned about the interplay between a word’s form and meaning than I am, given that “spell” means “word”, and given the practice of deliberately introducing mistakes and flaws into occult records to prevent spells working for the unlearned. But obviously, that’s more your concern than mine.

    As for the “seltic” Celtics, that’s the nineteenth century for you. Classical Latin was still being taught with its medieval English pronunciation, and people took a lot of French, too. If people had been reading about the Celts in the German publications, they wouldn’t have made this mistake. :)

  • http://www.draknet.com/proteus Judy Harrow


    You’re totally correct about the double c being pronounced as ch in Old English. But a lot of our people learned this stuff from books. We didn’t have many specialists in Old English around. So the hard K pronunciation became a habit, and, to be honest, there were too many more important issues to attend to in re-creating our religion. It’s the core understandings that really matter.

    warmly / Judy

  • Stephen A.

    Judy. you missed my point in your post a few posts back (2:37 am on November 12, 2006). I am fully aware there is no Christian-like Devil figure in Wicca (or in other Pagan belief systems, except the so-called ‘Church of Satan’ etc.) My point is that Pagans I’ve known or heard speak about their beliefs, and apparently you, make it a very STRONG point of doctrine that a Christian-like Devil absolutely does NOT exist in Wicca.

    To me, that is ironically dogmatic.

    I’m not shilling for the devil or the Christian view of him here, I’m just pointing out a bit of dogma in a supposedly non-dogmatic system.

    As for the structure of Paganism in general, again I’m fully aware that there is no formal structure and that it’s very loosely organized. But again, there are “understandings” about what I would dare to call “doctrine”: no Christian-like devil, acceptance of the Wicca Rede and a karma-like force in the universe, the existence (at least ‘spiritually’) of male/female aspects of The Divine/Nature, the existence of some kind of magickal force in Nature and that it’s connected to the seasons.

    These appear to be shared by most if not ALL Wiccans, who do not seem to question these articles of faith – and articles they are, indeed.

    Wiccans, almost to a person, vociferously decry any attempt to label these as “doctrines” when Wicca clearly has evolved this unspoken “Creed” that must be accepted by Initiates, even if it’s not explicitly described as such.

    In fact, I’ll go so far as to say these Wiccan statements of doctrine are at this stage DOGMA – “the established belief or doctrine held by a religion, ideology or any kind of organization, thought to be authoritative and not to be disputed or doubted.” (Wikipedia)

    News coverage should highlight this irony and question sources accordingly, since no other group would get away with saying they have no doctrines when they clearly do.

  • Stephen A.

    To the future Dr Chase, who posted above: You must know that Buddhism and the other Faiths you use as an analogy for Wicca’s supposed lack of structural doctrines do indeed have rigid, clear doctrines just as Wicca does, even if the Richard Gere version of Buddhism, to cite one example, doesn’t appear to manifest them fully.

    Buddhism, like Christianity and even Neo-Paganism, are indeed similar in the sense that they VALUE doctrine, and conflicts arising from differences in doctrine, be they how or WHOM is worshipped and of course, worship practices themselves (singing, tongues, drumming, etc.) – not to mention good old fashioned personality clashes – spawn new movements, groups and even (shudder) denominations, even if they aren’t named as such in Paganism.

    To pretend that Wicca and Paganism is somehow beyond “all that dogmatic stuff” is simply untrue, even if there is a greater allowance for personal expression of those dogmas in Wicca and Paganism.

    The thing is, they’ve just not bought into the OTHER religions’ dogma. They definitely have their own. It’s like the fundamentalist church I went to in which they savaged the idea of symbolism in the mainline churches, then they all lined up to receive a hands-on blessing by the pastor.

    In a sense, it’s just like all other movements, which I suppose is the main argument Wiccas are making, and with which I happen to agree.

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  • http://www.draknet.com/proteus Judy Harrow

    First, there’s an update on the veterans’ grave marker issue at Associated Press this morning.

    Second, to Stephen A.:
    Yes, I think your understanding of Wiccans and Pagans is pretty accurate. It seems to me that we just have different understandings of the words “dogma” and “doctrine,” but I did say that from the outset.

    To me, “religious belief” means giving intellectual assent to some statement(s) about the nature of the Sacred, taking those statements to be statements of literal fact. I personally think that any statement any person or group can make on that subject is just their best guess, individual or collective. So, I understand “dogma” to mean telling somebody that a particular belief is required. If that understanding is off-base, please do help me adjust it.

    Christopher Chase pointed out elsewhere that “what do you believe?” is just not a question much asked among any non-Christian religion. “How do you practice?” is much more prevalent. Or an even better way to say it would be:

    1. How do you establish, sustain and clarify your contact with Deity (however you understand Deity)?
    2. How is your daily life nurtured and guided by that contact? (especially in the hard times)

    Now, it’s only natural for folks who are actively seeking and sustaining Sacred Contact to do so within a faith group, which offers us the benefit of others’ experience and a lot of other good things. And it follows that we will be most comfortable in the company of others whose guesses are pretty similar to our own. If that’s what you mean by “dogma” and/or “doctrine,” yes, we have that, and I think everybody does.

    What I mean when I say we are not dogmatic is that we do not believe that people whose guesses about the Great Mystery are different than our own are necessarily excluded from Sacred Contact.

    So, are we just talking past one another. And, if we were, does this help?

    warmly / Judy

  • http://www.deborahlipp.com/wordpress Deborah

    “could you recommend a website that can quickly diagram the sililarities and differences of the pagan religions?”

    The Witches’ Voice has a very nice “traditions” guide>, with submissions by representatives of a wide variety of Pagan faith groups. Not a diagram, and quite a lot of wordage, but valuable.

    Isaac Bonewits, a well known Pagan author and speaker, has written a widely-distributed essay called What Do Neopagans Believe?. (Warning: Loud ugly colors on the page.) I’ve found this all over the place, and it’s quite good as a broad summation.

  • Stephen A.

    Judy, dogma simply implies that beliefs and practices are agreed upon – settled, if you will.

    Personally, I see a great deal of uniformity of belief in Wicca that apprently Wiccans themseleves do not see. That’s not a condemnation or criticism by any means, just an observation. It’s an area of discussion I’ve not seen in the many stories I’ve seen on Wicca.

    The points I mentioned in my last post about Wicca (though, to clarify my earlier points, not necessarily for Neo-Paganism) seem to be generally agreed upon.

    It’s not that they are forced upon anyone, or that they are even “required” in the same sense as Christians use the term, in the form of a binding, credal statement. But you tell me, is the belief that there is no devil “required” or can a Wiccan believe in him/her/it? Is the belief that the Goddess and her male counterpart exist (in some fashion – real or archetypal) “required” or can someone reject that and see the earth as their god, or perhaps see God as a personal deity that watches over creation, perhaps in a magickal sense? Can Wiccans simply disregard the Wicca Rede, or is it more of an unspoken article of faith, as I suggested before? The answers to these questions will determine if a belief is dogmatic (accepted, unquestioned by most practitioners) or whether it is simply optional and can be accepted, or disregarded in worship and/or daily practice.

    My point for this line of discussion isn’t to get theological or to challenge Wicca, by the way, but perhaps it is to challenge Wiccans to explore and state their beliefs. Reporters, as we’ve seen, tend to be extremely vague about Wiccan and Pagan/Neo-Pagan belief systems, and practicioners (just like some Christian groups) are allowed to self-define without being challenged – and I mean that in a positive, journalistic sense, not in a hostile sense – to give readers a full and accurate picture.

    It’s from that picture readers (many of whom are Christians, or at least non-Wiccans) can, perhaps, gain a better appreciation for what non-traditional faiths believe.

  • http://www.arcanology.com Al

    Stephen A,

    Required by whom?

    You say, “Personally, I see a great deal of uniformity of belief in Wicca that apprently Wiccans themseleves do not see.”

    If you were a Wiccan, perhaps you wouldn’t see it either. You are an outsider, looking in, and basing your opinions on a few conversations with people? You are also focusing pretty tightly on Wicca instead of Neopaganism as a whole.

    People generally say “I am a Wiccan” and others don’t gainsay them unless they are clearly doing things that other Wiccans around them find to be in conflict with Wicca. Even then, there isn’t going to be a public shaming.

    You are also ignoring the difference between people who read a few books or met with a few friends and decided to practice Wicca by making it up from all of the books they read and maybe a few public events and those who joined one of the established Traditions, many of which are over 40 years old in the United States now. These traditions have many more conventions about belief and a lot of regularity in praxis (and the focus on praxis mentioned here repeatedly is something you have been ignoring) than the self-declared individuals doing it from books.

    Judy is a leader of the one of established traditions though she isn’t making a great amount of noise about it here. She’s also a respected elder within the Wiccan community. If you want an individual who can give you a bit of a reality check, talk to her.

    As to there being no devil and the like. There are Luciferian witches out there who see Lucifer as a Light Bringer or as Tubal Cain, who created metalworking, etc. They generally don’t identify as “Wiccan” though they may call themselves Witches. I think you miss the general level of diversity amongst all of the Neopagans.

    I also wonder about your comments early on this blog post where you expressed skepticism about people being targeted for their beliefs. When some recent examples were provided, why did you not respond?

  • http://lilairen.livejournal.com Kiya

    To add to the resource selection, http://ecauldron.com has a number of essays including short descriptors of a variety of pagan religions. I’d suggest the Pagan Features and Article Library to the curious.

    The Cauldron is more reconstructionist-heavy than many/most pagan forums, which is one of the reasons I spend time there. (As a manner of minor disclosure, I wrote a few articles for them, including their Kemetic FAQ. I have been told that my FAQ is a good neutral overview by co-religionists of several denominations.)

  • Stephen A.

    Al, I thank you for your message.

    You seem to be making my point about uniformity here by noting “conventions” and “traditions,” etc. While those aren’t called “doctrines” or (for more established doctrines, “dogma”) by pagans, that seems to be indeed what they are, much to pagans’ chagrin, no doubt. And that’s my entire point.

    I’m simply noting that the horrific aversion to those “christian-like” words among pagans (and specific to this discussion, Wiccans) seems a bit odd, given that very strong “conventions” obviously exist among that religion, although I will readily admit that bucking convention and tradition is definitely a pagan trait. Still, the conventions must be there to buck in the first place, correct?

    I am well aware of the diversity in paganism and in Wicca specifically. However, my overall and continuing observation is that it’s extremely ironic that there is such uniformity of BASIC beliefs among these diverse practices, and that this fact is so hard for them to admit. The fact that the elders of the faith say “Now, this is how it’s done..” and “This is what we believe about…” is, in fact, the passing on of doctrine. Which is great, don’t get me wrong, but to say, then, that “we have no doctrines” is a bit disengenuous to outsiders (of which I may or may not be. I’ve never professed a faith on this blog.) The mythology of the “free spirit” is passed along, but in fact, paganism (Wicca and Neo-Paganism being the major variants) has a rigid set of core doctrines, that nonetheless allows for great diversity in expression.

    As for the tales of persecution, I will readily admit also that it exists, perhaps more than I realized. Anyone who dares to be different risks persecution, clearly. Whether this is a return to the ‘Burning Times,’ I will leave to others to decide, but I don’t believe it’s as bad as that. As far as I know, the Churches around my area haven’t been dunking witches in the river recently.

    And to cleverly keep this on-topic, I have NEVER seen a discssion like the one I’m suggesting here in print. Has anyone else seen this aversion to certain verbiage questioned by the media? … Not that Pagan Theology is a hot topic these days in the MSM!

  • http://www.arcanology.com Al


    I think you missed one point in my post. When I speak of “established traditions”, like Judy’s, I am using the normal Wiccan equivilent of “Denomination.” A tradition or “trad” in Wicca is a lineage of practice with established practices, forms of detiy, etc.

    The reason that you find such a uniformity in practice is largely because Wicca comes from a handful of trads (well, one with Gardner, originally). Then people wrote books which others, with no exposure initially to existing trads, used as the basis of their practice. Books like Starhawk’s “The Spiral Dance,” for example. There is also the influence of the festival circuit.

    AS to the unwillingness of Wiccans or Neopagans (which are not one and the same, I will point out again, shared membership of the former in the latter notwithstanding) to acknowledge that they have doctrines, it is because, for most of them, they don’t. At the end of the day, any individual will believe what they want. If a person or group has issues with those beliefs, they don’t practice with that person or group. With only a few exceptions of large scale organized groups, most Wiccans work in small covens of a dozen people or less or are solitary except when they might go to Sabbats open to the general public and hosted by a group in their area.

    I also get the feeling that you are unaware of how UNLIKE Wicca quite a few pagan groups are just because they aren’t noticed and no one outside of them pays attention to their beliefs generally. Asatru being a poster child for this.

    I’m more than happy to talk about this with anyone in e-mail. I am 35 now. When I was 18, I became a Wiccan. I joined an open, “outer grove” study circle organized by a longstanding coven in my area for a year after meeting the High Priest at a local Unitarian-hosted CUUPS Sabbat ritual. After a couple of years without being in a coven, I met a man who was part of Judy Harrow’s lineage who had a coven. I was initiated into that at the initial degree but the coven later disbanded and he returned to his city of birth. From there, I eventually migrated in Asatru, joining the Ring of Troth (now simply “The Troth”) in the early 1990s through the mid-90′s. During this same period, I became involved in Hermetic magic and Thelema. Eventually, while maintaning many of my former associations and friends, I became a Vajrayana Buddhist, which I have been for some time now.

    All of this bio is to show a not terribly atypical progression within the overall realm of Neopaganism (though many Thelemites don’t consider themselves to be Neopagans). I was never condemned for my changing affiliations or beliefs. Frankly, no one really cared and questions of doctrine did not come up. As Chas Clifton has said, you would be better served by focusing on practice and less on belief as Wicca and Neopaganism take the Protestant view of each man (or woman) his own priest to its natural conclusion. All Wiccan initiates are priests and priestesses after all. Amongst initiates, there is no laity though some are more specialized than others.

  • http://lilairen.livejournal.com Kiya

    It’s worth noting that “The Spiral Dance” never claims to speak of Wicca at all (I believe its sole mention of Wicca is as something some other people do that’s kind of similar); its author is a Feri initiate.

    Feri is another religious witchcraft religion, one even less organised in many ways than Wicca; its founder had correspondence with Gardner, but his creation is independent. (Though ironically, I imagine Anaar might be sufficient of a specific religious leader to manage that particular hoop-jump if a Feri were concerned about VA symbol access.)

    The question of the invisibility of non-religious-witchcraft modern paganisms is why I suggested the Cauldron as a resource. It is one of the few non-specific forums I’ve ever encountered that does not have a strong bent towards Wicca and its derivatives. (There is some belief among the trad witches there that it has a bias against their particular religious persuasion, though. Not being a trad witch, I can’t speak to that.)

  • Stephen A.

    Al, I suppose we’re both agreeing and disagreeing, and perhaps it’s just terminology.

    That you evolved and moved along various religious paths does indeed sound like a typical pagan. Then again, someone moving from Baptist to Presbyterian to Episcopalian to Catholic (or the reverse route) would have a very similar story.

    Yet, those denominations wouldn’t have changed thier doctrine when the person left them – the person would have changed in his/her acceptance of them and in their interpretation (even if he/she continued to accept the CORE beliefs of Christianity at each stop along his/her spirtual journey.)

    Similarly, if a Wiccan evolves into being Asatru, that doesn’t mean Wicca changed, but that the person has accepted a new form of worship, new gods and new thoughts about the world and its relation to the divine. The new mindset would be expressed in the DOCTRINES of the person’s newly-acquired faith.

    If a Wiccan were to choose to accept a personal, Christian-like Devil, they will have, in some very real sense, ceased to be “wiccan” at all, will they not? I suppose if enough Wiccans did this, the doctrine/mindset of Wicca would simply change, but that also illustrates the point that there are core beliefs in each religious path, admiting for wide diversity in their expression, of course, but they still are present.

    I recently attended a Pagan Pride event and spoke with an Asatru practitioner. Clearly, the ritual he demonstrated, and the mindset and belief system behind his faith (as his group saw and practiced it) and that of the Wiccans around him at the event, were very different. It was clear in our discussions that the devotee of the Norse gods did not find much common ground with the Wiccans, and frankly, it’s because he had DOCTRINES to which he subscribed that didn’t mesh with the Wiccans’ doctrinal system. However loose it was, it wasn’t THAT loose. (I’m speaking generally, of course. I’m sure there’s a syncretistic person or group who could merge the two, though with some difficulty.)

    Again, the doctrines are there, even if they are unacknowledged.

  • Bell of Winnipeg

    Hello all,

    Here are a couple of “short snappers” which might help convey the taste of Wiccan practice.

    The “Credo” is something I wrote, and use in teaching. The second piece is from Hutton, discussing five ways that Wicca is different from most religions.

    Bell of Winnipeg


    A Pagan Credo

    1. I believe in the active living presence of deity in the world.
    2. I believe in the ability of all to make direct contact with deity.
    3. I believe in the holiness of the world, the flesh, and the spirit.
    4. I believe in personal power and personal responsibility.
    5. I believe there are many paths to deity, and many right ways to live.
    6. I do not judge other faiths, and I do not convert, for forced conversion is a violence to the soul.


    excerpt from “Triumph of the Moon”, Dr. Ronald Hutton, U of Bristol

    “I would now like to add five more features of modern pagan witchcraft, based upon my own observation of it, which are not usually identified by its practitioners but seem to me to be important. First, it aims to draw out and enhance the divinity within human beings. Second, it abolishes the traditional Western distinction between religion and magic. Third, it is a mystery religion, or set of mystery religions. Fourth, its essence lies in the creative performance of ritual. Fifth, it is eclectic and protean.”

  • Kris

    My goodness you people could pick apart a diamond.

    My family calls ourself pagans and we don’t have that credo. We don’t have much of any credo except “and ye harm none, do what you will.”

    I feel spiritual power in nature, and I am part of it. I feel spiritual power in connecting with the ancient religions, so I do it. We celebrate the wheel of the year and we enjoy it. It puts us in tune with nature and keeps us thinking about what lies behind the veil.

    My husband and I are both vets. We both want to be cremated, so we don’t even need a pentacle, but we do like them a good bit.

    I don’t care if wicca is old, new, celtic or whatEVER. I’m polytheistic. It hit me as thirty five years ago and has stuck since.

    For me the practice of religion is to help me raise my spiritual awareness and less about the worship some else’s image of a powerful, jealous old man and his goat nemesis.