Atheistic Wicca

Atheistic Wicca January 8, 2012

[This is Eric Steinhart’s next to last post in my long series on atheism and Wicca.]

My approach to Wicca has been critical.  For philosophers at least, and hopefully for any rational person, criticism is based on careful analysis; it points to both the good and to the bad, to the true and to the false.  It cannot be one-sided; it must strive to be fair.  And it certainly isn’t knee-jerk hostility.

One of the goals of philosophical analysis is to look for deep structure underneath surface structure.  When such analysis is applied to religion, its task is to look for the conceptual and rational logos underneath religious mythos.  This series of posts has worked to look beneath the Wiccan mythos for its logos.  Contrary to those who without thinking dismiss Wicca as entirely made of woo, this series indicates that Wicca is not merely mythos; on the contrary, it has a logos, it contains a logical deep structure.

Unfortunately, this logos is all too often covered with layer after layer of woo – with wishful thinking, pseudo-science, anti-rational or even mentally disturbed thinking.  Some Wiccans may be offended by the term woo, which seems derogatory.  To them it must honestly be said that their own books and websites present doctrines that are manifestly indefensible by people who use modern technology and that, frankly speaking, many of those books and websites seem to prey on the emotionally vulnerable and mentally unstable.  The promotion of magic is especially both cognitively and ethically offensive.

And yet the woo in Wicca is not necessary; it serves certain psychological functions which an be served honestly.  An entirely woo-free Wicca is possible.  If an ancient honorific name is needed for this approach to Wicca, it might be called Athenic Wicca, after Athena, the goddess of wisdom.  Of course, atheistic Wiccans might just prefer to call it atheistic Wicca.  The core structures of a woo-free Wicca might look something like this:

1.  The Ultimate Deity.  On the mythic surface, the Wiccan ultimate deity is presented in theistic language.  But most Wiccan texts already describe the ultimate deity in rational terms.  The ultimate deity is just the ultimate immanent creative power of being.  It is wholly immanent and natural.  It is natura naturans.  Many atheists have argued for the reality of natural creative power.  Atheistic Wicca affirms the reality of the ultimate deity; however, it rejects all theistic or mythic attributes of this ultimate deity – it is not God.

2.  The God and Goddess.  On the mythic surface, the Wiccan god and goddess are spirit-people.  But there is no evidence for the existence of such people.  Atheistic Wiccans reject all spirit-people as idolatrous projections.  But the symbolism of the god and goddess points beyond itself to a deep structure under the mythic surface.  The deep structure is two abstract powers of being.  Natura naturans expresses itself as objective will and objective reason.  Objective reason is symbolized by the goddes and objective reason by the god.  But they are not spirit-people; they are merely symbols for abstract natural powers.

3. The Wheel of the Year.  On the mythic surface, the Wheel of the Year symbolizes the life-cycle of the god and goddess as a productive couple.  When the Wheel is rationalized, it symbolizes all the cycles of nature; ultimately, it concretely represents the abstract algorithmic iteration in the logic of creation and evolution by rational selection.  The Wheel symbolizes the logical action of the Priniciple of Sufficient Reason as it generates all natural complexity.

4. Reincarnation.  According to reincarnation, souls pass from body to body here on earth.  This is the transmigration of souls.  And transmigration is mythic.  It is a concrete way of referring to something more abstract.  This myth of transmigration points beyond itself towards rebirth.  Rebirth is palingenesis – it is the recreation of a counterpart of the self in some other universe.  It is expressed more clearly in Theravedic Buddhism and it gains some empirical justification from the arguments of Kurt Godel.  While transmigration is mythos, palingenesis is logos.   As rational rebirth, it is supported by the logic of creation and evolution by rational selection.  Atheistic Wicca affirms rebirth.

5. Personal Activities.  Wiccan writers describe various techniques for self-empowerment.  Such techniques include meditation (mindfulness), breathing, visualization, and other techniques for arousal regulation and self-optimization (self-mastery, self-discipline, askesis).  The Wiccan writers typically cover these techniques with a thick coating of woo.  However, these techniques have scientific foundations.  If any technique for work on the self is empirically supported, then atheistic Wiccans are free to use it.  And such techniques should be used.   Through these techniques, the rational manifestation of the will of the self is maximized.  Thus natura naturans is maximally manifest through the self.

6. Social Activities.  Atheistic Wiccans celebrate the sabbats without any theistic baggage.   Such celebrations can involve many different types of social ceremonies and rituals.  And atheistic Wiccans can preform ceremonial activities in sacred circles.  One might cast a circle against woo, summon the various cognitive and practical virtues, and so on.  But it seems best to leave the details of such practices to Wiccan groups.

Even if a woo-free Wicca is possible, it is hardly clear that it can ever happen.  There seems to be a culture of woo in Wicca.  Book after book, website after website, presents wishful, confused, and delusional thinking.  Since none of that is essential, it is tragic.  The depth of woo in Wicca is likely to lead either to its degeneration into New Age nonsense or to its social collapse as its new practicioners find that the woo accomplishes nothing.  And as Wicca grows, the woo is surely going to attract the critical attention of other religious groups as well as scientists and skeptics.  Wicca may die of woo.  And that would be deeply unfortunate, since it would mean the death of an alternative to Abrahamic religion in the West.  Anyone interested in seeing alternatives to the dominant Abrahamic religions in the United States ought to encourage Wicca to get real, get serious, get clean.


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  • Mark Green

    If Wicca were to “get real”, it couldn’t be Wicca any longer: it would have to dispense with pretense of the existence of gods or an actually extant quality of “divinity”, as well as to abandon its belief in physically effective “magic” and its enthusiasm for real or imagined “ancient lore” such as astrology. That just isn’t going to happen.

    I have been creating a tradition of Atheopaganism with some friends which dispenses entirely with the woo. It makes no pretense that there is some form of life after death: it is about enriching, morally informing and bringing color and meaning to our brief lives while we have them.

    For what it’s worth, my essay telling the story of how I gave up on Paganism after more than 20 years, and the path forward, is at