In the witch’s closet

wiccanaltarEver since the so-called New Age era, I have been interested in the rise of Wicca and the whole neopagan scene. This trend raises all kinds of interesting issues of coven and state (Do conservative Christians really want equal access laws?), and you really can’t talk about faith in popular culture, especially Hollywood, without dealing with the new consumer-friendly forms of paganism.

But the subject does freak many people out. I mean, you should have read my email after my infamous Mother’s Day Scripps Howard column that began like this:

Few moments are as precious to mothers as the hushed rituals of bedtime.

Kristin Madden’s memories include watching her 3-year-old son use the first personal altar he built on his father’s old ironing board. He covered it with a blue cloth and added rocks, a baby tree, an earth flag and his hatching-dragon sculpture. Then the two of them would snuggle and talk about magic and the travels he would take in his dreams.

Finally, they would say a favorite prayer, such as: “Now I lay me down to bed. Great Spirit, bless my sleepy head. As I journey in my sleep, I know the Dragons my soul will keep. Mother Earth and Father Sky, watch over me here where I lie. Fairies please carry my love to all. Relations and loved ones, I do call.”

Kristin Madden is a tutor in the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. Pagan mothers say bedtime prayers, too.

All of this is to say that I enjoyed reading Neela Banerjee’s New York Times piece that ran with the headline “Wiccans Keep the Faith With a Religion Under Wraps.”

The basic thesis is that there are people out there in Middle America who have converted to Wicca, yet elect to remain in the closet — even to their parents — because they fear adverse reactions. Here is a key section of the story:

Many Wiccans practice some form of magic or witchcraft, which they say is a way of affecting one’s destiny, but which many outsiders see as evil. The Wiccan pentacle, a five-pointed star inside a circle, is often confused with symbols of Satanism. (The five points of the star represent the elements of nature — earth, air, fire and water — and the spirit, within the eternal circle of life.)

It is unclear how many Wiccans and other pagans there are. The 2001 American Religious Identification Survey by the City University of New York found that Wicca was the country’s fastest-growing religion, with 134,000 adherents, compared with 8,000 in 1990. The actual number may be greater. … Some people may have been unwilling to identify themselves as pagan or Wiccan for the survey. Others combine paganism with other religions.

Here is what bothers me.

wiccaAll through the piece we hear about people who do not understand Wicca and who threaten — in one way or another — those who practice this faith. Yet we never meet one or more of these people or even scholars who speak from this perspective (the history of Wicca is a minefield of controversial issues). The whole story presumes that these people are out there (and they are), yet we never hear from them.

The more I thought about it, this reminded me of a classic American Journalism Review article titled “Pat Robertson’s J-school.” It opened with an anecdote about a Regent University publication’s story about the rise of occult groups in the region.

But there’s a problem, even beyond the assumption of direct connections between local covens and Satanism.

“Allure of the occult” tells the story of Satanist and vampire cults in this corner of Virginia. Student journalists [Sheila] Dorn and John David Kudrick turn to police detectives who track occultists, professors who study Satanism and news clippings about witches’ covens in the area to write about what the inside headline calls “The evil that lurks in the darkness.”

Nowhere in the 1,200-word story is there any attempt to speak to a Satanist, witch or vampire. The editors never even considered such an effort. It would have been, they say, un-Christian.

“We want to show our faith in every story,” says Dorn, a tall, cheerful 26-year-old in flannel shirt, jeans and workboots. “We’re not an investigative paper.”

“We’re saying, ‘Hampton Roads, this is out there, you should know about it,’” Kudrick adds. “Our purpose in this story is to say we think this is something detrimental. It’s a fallen world and we’re in the end times.”

I think we would all agree that this is a rather narrow and one-sided approach to journalism, even in a niche magazine. But this would be even more true in the hard-news pages of a major, mainstream newspaper.

So, in this Times piece, why do we hear about the critics of Wicca — the assumption seems to be that they are mere fundamentalists — yet we never hear from them? We never hear them describe their criticisms of Wicca, even though the entire piece pivots on their anti-Wiccan attitudes. Is the goal to stress that the views of the opponents of Wicca are, well, “detrimental”?

Strange. Spooky, even.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Rathje

    We had a Wicca adherent start attending our (Mormon) Sunday services once. I remember our bishop being rather concerned and arranging for his wife to accompany the young lady to all church meetings. He didn’t have any particular gripes, but just expressed a general unease and a feeling that any moment she might go weird on us. For my part, I didn’t see what the big deal was. I had a largely neutral impression of modern witchcraft. To me it seemed a rather harmless ritualized form of nature worship. A sort of new-age trend. I wasn’t really worried that she’d “go X-Files” on us or anything like that.

    But like you said, we knew absolutely nothing about the movement. My own impressions were based solely on a few isolated internet references I’d seen.

    So, are these people openly hostile to the monotheistic God I worship? Or are they simply a bunch of New Agers trying to add a bit of richness and ritual into an otherwise overly materialistic American culture? I’d lean toward the later, but it’s not like I have a basis for an opinion.

    Doesn’t look like the media is willing to help me out there.

  • Kristine J

    I’ve seen lots more of this kind of ‘journalism’ in central Wisconsin, recently. This is the kind of thing that confuses paranoia and fear with fact. For example: A headline piece about a recent law passed in our state that defines marriage as between one man and one woman quoted a lesbian couple who wished to remain annonymous because they were afraid their professional level jobs would be at risk if they spoke out. It was phrased in such a way that it appears their livelihood was threatened, but the only threat is in their own minds, OR the paper is trying to get a bigger story out of them than is there, and is misquoting them. (I, and everyone else in the area know this couple, know their living arrangement, and know how they like to overblow these things for attention. I also know I woudn’t go to either one for marriage counseling- which is the profession they are both in.)

    Here’s just one of those quotes in the Times piece:

    “The auditor said that by “coming out of the broom closet,” he risked ostracism at work and perhaps being pushed into early retirement, which would affect his pension. “I don’t even want to contemplate it,” he said.”

    So, this guy’s paranoia is taken as fact, no questions asked. No investigating whether there are policies in place at his workplace to prevent discrimination. No cold hard facts that say “This Wiccan has been fired because of his beliefs” or “That Wiccan has had to have counselling because of cruelty and ostracism at work”. Nothing. Just fears taken as fact. Shoot, before you can be persecuted for what you believe, people have to know you believe it. Everyone quoted here is too timid to even get to the point where they could be considered controversial.

    There are no surveys done of the general public’s hostility level toward Wiccans, no quotes from anyone saying ‘burn the witches’, nothing. That’s not journalism. That’s advocacy disguised as journalism.

  • Jason Pitzl-Waters

    Considering the fact that many mainstream articles on Wicca and modern Paganism over the years often quote a local conservative Christian from their journalistic rolodex, even though most Christian leaders have a foggy notion of modern Paganism at best, it was refreshing to read a piece that doesn’t give a soapbox to anti-pagan ranting. Do we really need to hear the Christian arguments against polytheism and magic once more?

    As for scholars critical of modern Paganism and Wicca, while some scholars are critical of dodgy historical claims, almost all that I have encountered are quite willing to legitimize Wicca and other modern Pagan faiths. Unless you stretch the term “scholar” to its breaking point and include the inaccurate and evangelistic-minded writings of people like Catherine Sanders (author of “Wicca’s Charm”) or Tim Baker (author of “Dewitched”).

    But I do think the journalist in this case should have included more concrete examples of the perils of being “out” about one’s adherence to modern Paganism. After the Christianity Today blog, referencing this piece, scoffed at the notion of discrimination or persecution I was able to find two instances from the past week in which harassment of Pagans occurred due to their visibility.

  • Jason Pitzl-Waters

    “So, this guy’s paranoia is taken as fact, no questions asked.”

    It isn’t paranoia if they are really out to get you. Like I just said, the article should have included examples of discrimination and harassment of modern Pagans. Since many will see our claims as “paranoia” or that the journalist is “advocating” for us. But I can tell you with some confidence as someone who follows Pagan-related news stories on a daily basis, that firings, harassment, custody battles, and discrimination do happen, and I can provide the links to prove it.

  • Black Knight

    If anyone wants any examples of christians actively persecuting Wiccans, one needs to look no further than Great Falls, SC and a resident there named Darla Wynne. A Google search will give you all the necessary information.

  • Judy Harrow

    Rathye asks:

    So, are these people openly hostile to the monotheistic God I worship?

    Not hostile, just different. We perceive and relate to the Great Mystery through polytheistic models. In that way, we are something like the Hindus — although we are more immanence-based, while Hinduism stresses transcendence.

    I agree with Jason that more concrete examples of discrimination and harassment would have strenghthened the article. For the most obvious example, Get Religion readers may recall recent discussion right here on this blog about how very difficult it was for us to win the right for our deceased military veterans to have their graves marked with the symbol of our faith.

    There’s an ongoing conversation within the Wiccan community about whether it’s best for us now to stay hidden or to come out. The general consensus is that this has to stay a matter of personal choice, because people’s circumstances vary so widely.

    I was always out, and never had any trouble, but I live in metropolitan New York, and my career (I’m retired now) was in civil service. That’s pretty safe. One of my students ex-husband tried to deny her visiting rights to her children on the basis of her religion.

  • Vetch

    There aren’t that many cases of persecution against pagans nowadays, and they usually occur to Wiccans in heavily Christian areas who are trying to push for religious freedoms or just wish to not have to lie to other people about what they believe. Also, this usually happens in America; people over here in the UK are much more live and let live aboiut faith, and I have never had any negative reactions for saying I’m a Druid. People take me seriously. It is just another faith now. The only people really threatened are the evangelists.

  • ander

    My own mother will not stop trying to convert me to christianity,after i choice to accpet wicca/the Goddess as my main spritual path. so i try very hard not to talk about religion becasue when she gets started i end up either enduring her dogma or fighting with her. thanks to her relgious friends(the source of her information about god, i doubt she’s even readed the bible) i have to put up with my own mother telling me how i’m going to hell and then she is always trying to put words in my mouth. I personal blame those telavangists like Pat Roberson who send out all the lies, bigoty and hate out on to the tv/radio. bottom line i wish i never told her!

  • Kym

    Most likely the reason no one who opposes Wicca was interviewed is because there have been numerous articles in which people have criticized Wicca. And, I might add, some of these articles haven’t even interviewed a Wiccan. How is this any different? There are few enough articles that are positive about the religion. And, most Wiccans would rather focus on the positive. However, that doesn’t mean that the discrimination, bigotry and threats don’t exist. They do. People have lost their jobs (of course-in a state where they don’t have to give a reason-it’s hard to tell exactly why, but sometimes the reason it obviously religious in nature), people have lost custody of their children. There was even a divorce case last year, Illinois I believe, where the parents were both Wiccan and agreed on the religious upbringing of their child, but the judge ordered them to not expose the kid to ‘weird religious practices’. It was overturned, of course, but in the meantime the parents could not include their own child in their faith. So, there are already plenty of dissenting voices out there, and not every article on the subject needs to include both sides. After all, when there is an article about Christianity, do they interview non-Christians? Of course not.

  • Morgan Ravenwood

    A classic case of extreme persecution is Darla Wynne, who has suffered greatly for her victory over the town of Great Falls, SC:

    Unfortunately, persecution of those Wiccans and Pagans who are “out” is rife in EVERY section of the country but most especially in the “Bible Belt.” Small wonder that many decline to go public about their faith. On the plus side, with the recent decision by the V.A. to allow the pentacle symbol on the headstones of fallen soldiers in V.A. cemeteries, Wiccans have scored a great advance in being respected and recognized alongside of “mainstream” religions. However, we’re still a long way from true equality. Anyone who truly wants to find examples of persecution of Wiccans and Pagans needn’t go very far on the Internet to find them.

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  • tmatt

    Folks, if a story is about a conflict between Christianity and another group, of COURSE you quote solid, representative people from the critical group. That’s journalism.

    My question about the article is journalistic. Keep that in mind.

    You don’t need to quote rock throwers unless the opponents of Wicca that are at the heart of that story happen to be rock throwers. There are good, quotable, informed critics out there. Again, it’s journalism.

  • Meg

    I agree that it would have been helpful to include some verifiable facts related to this case. As Jason commented, there are a number of documented stories about discrimination faced by Wiccans and Pagans today. While I don’t know of any opinion polls measuring public opinion toward Wicca, there certainly are plenty of books, articles, and internet posts demonstrating beliefs that Wicca either is not a valid spiritual path, or is an “evil” spiritual path.

    I do think that the stories of the individuals in question would have been difficult to verify, as suggested by Kristine. For example, I’m sure there probably are official policies preventing discrimination in the workplace of the government worker who was quoted – but that doesn’t mean discrimination wouldn’t happen. Official policies don’t prevent ostracism or behavior based on social prejudice, which is what this particular worker said he was concerned about.

  • Sparrow

    The bottom line is that most pagans don’t live in big cities where the less mainstream religions are better tolerated. Rural America is a lot bigger and the pagans that live in it have an unspoken tradition of treading lightly, if not invisibly, when it comes to spirituality. Now that the Wiccans (and the Pagan community at large, really) have won this law suit against the VA, the conversation about weather we should come out of the broom closet is an important one.

    I guarantee you, the more Pagans who come out of the broom closet, the more people you will hear/see speaking up against the Pagan religions. Will they be scholars who have studied the various Pagan religions and can intelligently speak about them? Doubtfully…Jason is right. It’s been my experience as well that those who put something down and run screaming in fear haven’t taken the time to do their homework.

    Jason, I am wondering if you have a database listing the links that you spoke of? Do you keep a website for the purpose of tracking these sorts of news stories? If so can you please post the link?

  • Judy Harrow


    I just want to say that I went and read your MOthers’ Day piece. It’s beautiful. Thank you very much for it!

  • SunflowerP

    The voices of those opposed to Wicca are not the only missing element here. Also missing are the “out” Wiccans talking about what they have, and what they have not, experienced in the way of discrimination. The group leaders interviewed, the Ewings, are presumably “out”, as evidenced by their willingness to use their real names, but they speak only of their group’s members’ choices.

    The result is that there’s nothing concrete in this article about what discrimination Wiccans do experience, unless one counts the brief reference to the pentacles-on-headstones fight. It’s an article about what an indeterminate number of Wiccans fear they might experience, with no attempt to investigate how justified these fears are – nor, for that matter, to determine whether Wicca really is, as the article claims, “largely a religion in hiding”, with a majority of adherents sharing those fears, or whether the degree of trepidation illustrated here is a minority position, or perhaps one that’s heavily dependent on geography.

    Many Pagans (Wiccan and otherwise), I’m certain, will consider this a “good” article, meaning that it’s sympathetic rather than hostile, and doesn’t misrepresent Wicca. Granted that this is an improvement on the frequent misrepresentation and occasional hostility that still can be found in non-Pagan coverage of Pagan religions, that doesn’t make this good journalism.


  • Jason Pitzl-Waters

    “…if a story is about a conflict between Christianity”

    Except that the story put no emphasis on Christianity as the sole source of conflict. In fact one of the examples listed his overly-secular job as a reason for staying in the “broom closet”.

    “There are good, quotable, informed critics out there.”

    Do tell. Who are these “informed” critics of modern Paganism? I for one would love to look over such a list.

  • Jason Pitzl-Waters

    “Jason, I am wondering if you have a database listing the links that you spoke of? Do you keep a website for the purpose of tracking these sorts of news stories? If so can you please post the link?”

    I keep a daily Pagan blog called “The Wild Hunt” that often tracks these stories (and other stories of interest to modern Pagans and people interested in modern Paganism). I suppose you could say I provide advocacy journalism from a polytheist perspective. Having said that, I don’t keep a database, though that would be a useful service for some Pagan organization to undertake.

  • MattK

    (Blogmasters, please, delete my comment if you think it is necessary. I won’t mind.)

    Rathje, when did Mormons become monotheists?

  • Chas S. Clifton

    A perennial theme of this blog is how ill-prepared many reporters are for covering stories about religion.

    As a former reporter myself (two daily papers, magazines), I see a tendency to assume that when the subject is marginal, there is no need to do real research.

    Rural people (“hicks,” you know), members of various subcultures, members of small religious groups such as Wiccans or Branch Davidians–there is no need to educate yourself about these. Just go out there with a notebook and a smile and get some quotes.

    There are a dozen new scholarly books on Wicca (including mine), but why bother to read them or interview their authors. Just get a few quotes and write the story.

    Ditto the critics whose presence Terry Mattingly misses.

  • thunorwine

    I resent the fact that almost everytime the media does a story on pagans or wiccans they always throw in a hostile word from some local christian fundi. Why does the medica when they do church stories ask a wiccan or pagan their views to “balance?”

  • Will Harrington

    I could see how dealing with Wicca could be a very difficult issue for journalists. From my own friends and aquaintences who considered themselves Wiccan it seems that there is a great variety doctrinally speaking with groups and individuals whe may or may not have much in common besides choosing to identify with an old english word. Using terminology like modern pagan raises more questions. OK, that lumps reconstructed systems like Druidism, Wicca, and Asatru together but does it also include modern survivals of undisputably ancient religions like Shinto, Asian and North American Shamanism, African Animism, and Santeria into the same group?
    I’m glad I’m not a jounalist having to deal with these questions.

  • Dennis Colby

    The Times could probably also do a story about how Wiccans and Pagans are gradually moving into the mainstream. For years, I worked at a paper in a town where a prominent local Wiccan was also an outspoken member of the Republican Town Committee. I’m sure there are other examples out there.

    It might be interesting to look at the experience of members of religious groups who feel they’re required to keep their faith secretly for one reason or another. I think the wrong approach from a journalism angle is to see this sort of thing in simplistic “Pagan vs. Christian” terms. There are a lot of groups out there who feel marginalized, from snake-handling churches in Appalachia to the members of furtive Bible study groups forbidden from openly meeting at their workplaces.

  • handrews

    Well, for one…drama sells. Look at cable news. The people behind the scenes don’t want a balanced, reasonable debate. They want controversy, secrecy, and taboo subject matter. That sells.

    My husband was a communication major in college. He remembers studying “Yellow Journalism”. It is his belief that this is the type of journalism that is once more becoming popular in today’s society. Basically, the cable news networks have just become live video feed tabloids. It’s got to be all flash and glam and do what you have to do to get ratings for these people these days.

    Let’s face it, these big name journalist organizations aren’t going to interview Average Joe or Suzy Homemaker for their opinion on non-mainstream religious practices when they can get quotes from people like the late Jerry Falwell, fanatical Fred Phelps, or the “pious” Pat Robertson. Those names grab attention and get people talking.

    It’s all about the Benjamins. How sad.

  • Julia Duin

    I must agree that instead of interviewing college professors, it would’ve been better to interview authors of books on Wicca. Catherine Sanders (whose book came out not that long ago) also lives in northern Va., and she could have offered a balanced view. (I disagree with the above comment on her; actually, Catherine was quite sympathetic to why people would want to join Wicca).
    Problem is, when you have to whip up a feature story, it takes so darn long to get through a book.

  • Jason Pitzl-Waters

    Julia Duin,

    I never said Sanders wasn’t “sympathetic”, I said she was inaccurate and evangelistic in her writings concerning modern Pagans (and I believe any thorough reading of her book will show that). Wicca’s Charm is certainly far more evolved and tolerant than her tract-writings for James Dobson’s organization, but any journalist using her as a critical source should keep those facts and perspectives in mind.

  • Judy Harrow

    I don’t personally see what’s wrong with consulting “college professors,” objective scholars of religious studies. But, if you’re looking for something written on a more popular level, I might recommend Christians and Pagans by Gus DiZerega (he is a college professor, but in a different field), or When Someone You Love is Wiccan by Carl Mc Colman.