Why Wicca Is a Major World Religion

Why Wicca Is a Major World Religion June 16, 2012

Gerald Brosseau Gardner, that strange retired Englishman, created Wicca because he could not find an adequate religion elsewhere. His museum contained hundreds of pamphlets from various minority religions, and dozens of documents about his memberships, initiations, and ordinations; he had been actively searching for many years. He did not create it out of whole cloth; he used many extant materials, but the structure he and his friends gradually evolved from the late 1930s to the early 1960s was definitely something new under the sun. If he had wanted Wicca to be a tiny secret cult spread only by word of mouth, he would never have written his books. But he did write them, because he hoped Wicca would become a major religion, able to stand on its own, against Christianity or any other religion. That he succeeded marks him as a true religious genius, comparable to Joseph Smith, Jr., or Mary Baker Eddy, or many others. Yet in a way he was even greater, because what he created was not just another variation on Christianity, but an entirely different religion, one that has strengths precisely where Christianity and the other world religions are weak. True, he was a rogue, a reprobate, a rascal guru, but, as William James pointed out in the first of the Gifford Lectures that became The Varieties of Religious Experience, no one who feels obligated to obey all the ordinary rules of society could possibly ever do something as extraordinary as creating a new religion. You can now read the details of how he did it in Philip Heselton’s magnificent biography of Gardner, Father of the Witches. (This is an entirely unsolicited testimonial.)

The importance of Wicca as a new religion is probably most obvious from its current size and rate of growth. The movement has been doubling in size about every two years since Ray Buckland brought the first officially Gardnerian coven to America in the early 1960s. In 1999, according to a survey sponsored by the Covenant of the Goddess, there were about 600,000 initiated Witches in America and therefore probably about 6,000,000 practicing Pagans—and it has been growing just as fast since then. That is, this religion is clearly meeting some needs in American society that are not being met as well by other religions. Let’s look at some of the needs to which the Craft movement offers a creative response.

First and foremost is the need for sacramental experiencing of sex. In theory this is possible within Christianity, but in practice such experiencing is not available to ordinary Christians; in practice most varieties of Christianity continue to be oppressively antisexual. At best, they rate sex as harmless—as long as it takes place only under specific circumstances. The modern theologies that value sexuality as a revelation of the divine nature are taught in graduate seminaries—and then are kept more secret from the people than any “secret” in the Craft is. Andrew Greeley has been, of course, the outstanding exception to this generalization; but there is no significant chance that the administration of the Roman Catholic Church will pay any attention to him. Lady Epona said to me in 1987, “If the Roman Catholic Church were actually as Greeley describes it, there would be no need for the Craft.” (Of course, those from Protestant, Jewish, and other backgrounds have their own reasons for being attracted to the Craft.)

Second, the mainstream churches in America offer ordinary people no practical paths for personal, spiritual development; traditionally, such development was reserved for the cloistered clergy, or for elderly scholars. There was nothing for ordinary people, and that lack has not been repaired. The Western occult tradition has addressed that need, but in many ways it has been infected by the viewpoint of the Eastern religions, which are all at least mildly, and often strongly, opposed to the development of psychic or magical abilities, or at least to the use of such abilities for any purpose other than achieving (or helping others achieve) “enlightenment.” The Craft rejects such an attitude as dualism, and asserts, in contrast, that the development and use of magical and psychic abilities is spiritual development. The Craft as currently practiced in America offers, at least potentially, a balanced and practical approach to development of a person’s emotional, spiritual, intuitive, and psychic needs and abilities.

Third, the Craft’s organization, based on the principle that every coven is autonomous, gives it a flexibility and viability that huge organizations lack entirely. Like the Jewish synagogue, the coven is inherently democratic; and in many covens, the democracy is kept from degenerating into irresponsibility and anarchy by the presence of a High Priestess whose authority depends upon her magical lineage, which is independent of the coven she leads and serves, just as the Synagogue can employ a Rabbi, but cannot itself ordain a Rabbi. (The analogy breaks down here, since the Craft movement generally recognizes the right of a coven to bootstrap itself into existence and to initiate its own priests and priestesses; but the balancing of responsibility between a Council of Elders and the High Priestess is still a valid structural parallel.) That is, the coven structure empowers its members, giving them control over their own religious practices and development.

The contrast with many of the Eastern religions and with the Roman Catholic Church could not be greater. In many Eastern religions, the authority of the teacher is absolute; but Pagans tend to be extremely anti-authoritarian, and will not submit to arbitrary authority—and in the Craft (at least in most covens) they do not have to. Likewise, despite the rhetoric of the Second Vatican Council, ordinary Roman Catholics still have very little control over their church. Theologians know that Christianity is inherently democratic, and that Christians have the right to elect their own ministers, priests, bishops, and so on. The founders of what is now Protestant Christianity rediscovered this fact during the Reformation. But no one in the Craft need worry that the Roman Catholic administration will soon relinquish the authority it has usurped over the centuries.

Fourth, the Craft is generally extremely anti-dogmatic in its approach. Although Witches do believe many things, belief is not a requirement for membership or initiation. Rather, the expectation in the Craft is that if a person goes through the training and experiences that the Craft has to offer with an open mind, then personal transformations will in fact happen—and “belief” as such will be unnecessary, since the person will know that he or she has been changed. Crafters look with amazement and amusement at how New Agers generally seem devoted to swallowing entire truckloads of metaphysical horse-puckey. As a result of this attitude, Crafters are not only open to modern science, but positively biased in favor of it—and so are rather well-equipped to live in the increasingly technological civilization of the future. In contrast, most varieties of Christianity, several varieties of Judaism, and many varieties of other “world” religions try either to ignore science or to accept its results only if forced to. This sort of spiritual “laziness,” as M. Scott Peck would characterize it, merely contributes to their ever-growing obsolescence. History is littered with the carcasses of religions that failed to evolve to meet changing circumstances, and big churches are a lot like dinosaurs—whereas the Craft is much more like the hot-blooded little mammals hiding in the thickets. The Big Religions evolved the serve the needs of societies that were based on agriculture; the Craft may not be the ultimate religion that could integrate our fuel-based, global civilization, but it’s the best approximation for now.

Fifth, the Craft’s polytheistic theology suits it for the future much better than the monotheistic or monistic theologies of most other religions do. The United States, and the world in general, is becoming more pluralistic. Given the immigration trends in the USA, our former WASP majority is rapidly losing its numerical and cultural dominance. The model for our future will no longer be the emotionless WASP male; rather, there will be no one model. Male and female, white, brown, or black, Asian or European, and free to feel our own feelings: we will all have the right to be different but equal. No longer will the most socially acceptable theology be, “There is only one God, and the rest of you better shape up, or else!” Nor will it be, “There are many gods, but they are all illusions,” as many Eastern religions have taught. Rather, we will recall what the Jews knew when they were writing the Law and the Prophets: that God really is both one and many, both male and female, both father and mother, all things to all people, out of love. The respectable churches have failed to tell the people that for far too long–and so the Witches get to say, “Yes, the Gods are real, and magic is afoot.”

Sixth, and last for now, the Craft is a religion dedicated to creativity, because it is a religion that Witches are creating for themselves continually. The only way to be a true follower of Gerald Gardner, my friends, is to have the guts to create a religion for yourself that meets your own needs. I think Witches love Tolkien especially because he teaches us that creativity is divine, that the nature of godhead is to be continuously overflowing with creativity like a fountain, and that we participate most completely in the divine nature when we ourselves are being creative. I think it deliciously ironic to know that Tolkien believed all that because he was truly a Roman Catholic theologian—and because his church has disowned him, as it disowns Andrew Greeley, it is up to the Witches to carry on his work and his vision.

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