What Good Is Religion, Anyway?
We all know the media mantra, “What bleeds, leads.” Bad news sells, and there’s nothing like a juicy religious scandal to drive traffic. Yet, for every sordid religious story, there are any number of quiet stories of charity, compassion, self-sacrifice, and service. In our obsession with bad news, what are we missing of the GOOD of religion? How is your tradition contributing (and how has it contributed) to the flourishing of the world?
This spring, we invite our writers—those of faith and those without—to remind us of the best of our traditions. How has faith, in big and small ways, theoretical and very concrete, served humanity and the world for good?
Witches don’t proselytize. So I rarely get the opportunity to wax rhetoric on why I think Wicca and Witchcraft are awesome. These are some good ideas that we witches value and encourage. I wouldn’t claim that we invented the ideas on this list, but certainly our faith helps to promote them in the popular consciousness, and in general, our actions support them in the world at large. Many of these ideas and virtues, I would argue, are also part of Paganism in general, but I can only speak to my own tradition.
5. Mind-Body Healing
One thing that we’ve learned from science in recent years is that healing is a whole-body, whole-spirit process. Village healers and parish priests knew this, and because witches hearken back to those village healers for inspiration, we have been helping to popularize this approach.
In some cases, folk medicine can help when nothing in the allopathic system does (such as for pain management); or, better yet, it supports the allopathic system (most chronic ailments and cancer are now managed in this way).
Now, I’ll admit, sometimes we go overboard on the “alternative” stuff, and there are a handful who avoid “Big Pharma” like the plague (and, while I think that they have a point about the pushing of unnecessary drugs for profit, there’s a big difference between that and avoiding life-saving medical therapy) most of us support a rational, holistic mind-body-spirit approach to our health, harnessing the placebo effect to our benefit, and again and again the research is telling us that this is the way to go.
4. Equality & Diversity
The Charge of the Goddess is probably the only common piece of liturgy we have. And it offers a few guidelines for ethical behaviour (I wrote about this in a recent article for Witches & Pagans Magazine). Part of it says:
Therefore, you shall be free from slavery; and as a sign that you be free, you shall be naked in your rites.
Also, part of the Wiccan initiation ceremony has the initiator kneeling before the initiate, saying:
In other religions the postulant kneels while the priest towers above him, but in the Art Magical we are taught to be humble, and so we kneel to welcome them . . .
I think that the significance of this is lost on most of us because our awareness of history does not often include an awareness of historical culture. England in the early twentieth century was a society in which class was everything. By the breaking down of the class structure within circle, and by going naked in ritual instead of draped in the robes of one’s class, early Wicca and Witchcraft promoted social and spiritual equality; which was a radical concept. This is the primary current that establishes Witchcraft as counterculture. I don’t think we should ever forget this, even if the rest of the Western world seems determined to do so.
It also says, from the point of view of our Goddess(es), that:
All acts of love and pleasure are My rituals.
I don’t think most of us realize how truly liberating this is. This positive sort of all-embracing sexuality says, essentially, that anything that happens sexually between consenting adults is not only fine, it is sacred. It is holy. Witchcraft not only accepts homosexuality, kink, polyamory and many other alternative sexualities, we embrace them and encourage them. Also, this gives women permission to be fully realized sexual beings, instead of saddling us with the “sins of Eve” or the “weight of Mara,” and implying that women who like sex are somehow morally corrupt.
It is perfectly sensible for us to then extrapolate that the Deities love us all equally and that we are all equals. I believe, therefore, that combating all forms of prejudice and inequality is a religious duty of all witches who share in the values of the Charge.
Which reminds me, one of the most significant aspects of Witchcraft that attracted me was that it had a feminine image of the Divine. The Creator was perceived of as a Great Mother Who gave us all birth. I have to tell you, I believe it does a great deal to empower a person to see that the Deities look a lot like you do; certainly it helped to empower me! This concept of Divinity, combined with the convention of a High Priestess as coven leader, helped to inspire the Women’s Spirituality movement. Their influence on the advances of modern feminism is undeniable. I can’t conceive of a world without feminism. I thank my Goddess every day that I was born in the middle of the “bra-burning seventies,” and I consider how different my life might otherwise have been. It’s a sobering thought, and witches contributed in a significant way to making that happen.
The natural is sacred to us. For witches in particular this, again, is supported in our Charge of the Goddess:
I who am the beauty of the green earth, and the white moon among the stars, and the mystery of the waters, and the desire of the heart (of man,) call unto Thy soul. Arise, and come unto me. For I am the soul of nature who gives life to the universe. From me all things proceed, and unto me all things must return.
I think this gives us a unique outlook. While Polytheistic beliefs are often regarded in anthropology as “primitive philosophies”, we find a belief in multiple deities to be much more in alignment with the forces of nature. Witches (and indeed, most Pagans) see no contradiction between their personal paths and modern science, and those who sneer at the use of magick often don’t understand what magick means to most of us. It helps us to promote respect for creation and find the sacred in the everyday. And that idea leads to a lot of other good ideas.
The Gaia Hypothesis remains hotly contested, but considering the Earth as a whole living organism, of which we are but a part, brought the concept of “ecosystem” into the common consciousness and made it, and “Mother Earth,” household words. And developments in Gaia theory have resulted in advances in Earth system science, biogeochemistry, systems ecology, and the new field of geophysiology. Many Pagans have been active proponents of Gaian beliefs, including Oberon Zell and Isaac Bonewitz, and our support helped bring this idea into the average living room.
Fling tomatoes if you like, climate change deniers. You’re welcome!
These days the meaning of “humanism” is often obscured. It is beginning to acquire a meaning as a polite way of saying “atheist.” That’s not exactly what it means. What it does mean is:
- any system or mode of thought or action in which human interests, values, and dignity predominate.
- devotion to or study of the humanities.
- (sometimes initial capital letter) the studies, principles, or culture of the humanists.
- Philosophy. a variety of ethical theory and practice that emphasizes reason, scientific inquiry, and human fulfillment in the natural world and often rejects the importance of belief in God.
During the Middle Ages, people had a very oppressive view of things, probably in part encouraged by the feudal ethic. They believed that they were impotent and powerless, and all glory was given unto God. Humankind was thought to be insignificant and the pawns of great forces we could not possibly understand.
Of course, some faiths do still believe that. I won’t argue with you about it. Some small groups maintained a different philosophy, such as certain branches of Islam and the troubadours of what would become Southern France; a topic for another day. But not long after the 95 Theses sparked the Reformation, large groups of people began to question this idea. A Humanist form of Christianity developed. For the first time in more than a thousand years, people began to question just how “insignificant” they actually were. They began to see the human being as a wondrous creature, capable of its own brand of miracles. The advancement of science helped to fuel this movement. The great revolutions of the 18th century (such as the French and American Revolutions) helped to fuel this movement. And likewise, humanism helped to fuel those movements, giving people to courage to doubt things they had not doubted in centuries.
One of the dirty little secrets that nobody likes to talk about is that there was a strong movement to reject the Church entirely, and that sparked a resurgence of interest in occultism in general. Keep in mind that the faith of the time ordained that the King of the land was appointed by God in a divine hierarchy, and to rebel against the King was also to rebel against God. During the 17th and 18th centuries practice of the Black Mass, as well as other forms of occult practice became commonplace in France, and they helped to fuel the movement that resulted in the French Revolution. Many of the men whose signatures graced the Declaration of Independence were Freemasons. And historians freely admit that Voodoo was the driving inspiration and rallying cry of the Haitian Revolution, which is often neglected for its historical importance; but it resulted in the first government of liberated slaves and it proved, once and for all, that all arguments that “slavery was part of the natural order” were utter bunk.
Rebellion against the Church, a growing interest in science, naturalism and philosophy, and greater exposure to other cultures for the common people, combined with the development of modern archaeology to encourage an interest in the Pagan cultures of the past. Thus began the Romantic movement, which directly spawned the Pagan movement in the early twentieth century. In my view, humanism is what led Aleister Crowley to write “Every man and every woman is a star,” and that is what led the early Wiccan writers (Leland, Gardner and especially Doreen Valiente) to proclaim from the point of view of the Goddess:
For if you do not find that which you seek within yourself, you will never find it without. For behold, I have been with you since the beginning, and I am that which is attained at the end of desire.
Humanism has given the world Constitutions and Charters, science, medicine, freedom of religion, and human rights. It is the name of the movement that causes us to fight against slavery, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, racism, classism, poverty, famine, thirst, disease, war, torture and genocide.
There are humanist movements in every faith – or lack thereof – on the planet. So I’m not saying that witches were responsible for the Humanist Movement; but our direct “spiritual progenitors” were. And I believe that we have continued to advance humanism as one of our basic philosophies. This is the advantage of being a “new” religious movement; humanism for us is not a good idea to aspire to, it is a core belief. It is what drives us to evolve ourselves as human beings, what inspires us to seek the force which we call “magick,” and what drives about 90% of our ethics. It is what keeps us from bowing to our leaders as if they were gods on earth.
If humanity is divine, then we can no longer shuffle our “sins” off on to some Adversary, Fate or the Gods. Nor are we waiting for a savior to come and magically fix it all for us. And that means that for better or for worse, we and us alone are responsible for the consequences of our actions (or lack thereof); and indeed, the actions of our nations or our species as well.
And that, more than anything else that we have to offer, just might make the world a better place.
 Scientific American is going to have a presentation on this on their Bright Horizons 18 cruise this December.
 Efforts have been made to combine both Valiente’s and Starhawk’s versions of “The Charge of the Goddess” in my quotations in this article.
 Witches & Pagans #29 “Wicca & Witchcraft” (December 2014,) “The Charge of the Goddess: A Wiccan Manifesto,” p. 20-23. ISSN 1546-2838