Superstition Is Back and Its Going Mainstream
*Note: If you choose to comment, make sure your comment is relatively brief (no more than 100 words), on topic, civil and respectful in language (not argumentative or hostile) and is devoid of links or photos.*
For many years now I have studied and taught about “fringe religions” in America: cults, sects, alternative religions, minority religious-spiritual groups and movements, etc. I suppose my fascination with the subject began when I discovered as a child that I had relatives who belonged to religious groups my parents and others considered “fringe” or even “cultic.” And when I discovered that some people considered our church in that broad category.
But it wasn’t until I was asked to co-teach a university course on “Deity, Mysticism, and the Occult,” during my doctoral studies, that I really became aware of Wicca and neo-Paganism in America. Then, in the 1970s, both (and some would categorize Wicca as part of neo-Paganism) became more public. It was not very difficult to find Wiccans and other neo-Pagans, talk with them, read their published books, visit their “shoppes,” and even invite them into my classes. And I did all of that, in addition to reading widely and deeply about the roots and origins of MODERN Wicca and neo-Paganism in Europe and North America.
All of that study felt like encountering a very strange and fringe religion, the “Religion of the Mother Goddess.” Then came the New Age Movement in the 1980s and 1990s with crystals and “channeling,” and beliefs about paranormal experiences such as divination, magick, etc. Suddenly, so it seemed, what had been widely considered superstition by both secular people and “mainstream” religious people was rising as an alternative religious tradition.
Twice I heard church historian Martin Marty explain this phenomenon—where many highly educated people were dabbling in the occult or even immersing themselves in it. He said, and I will never forget his memorable words, “When the secular policemen of modern naturalism get too heavy with their naturalistic nightsticks the people start smuggling the gods in brown paper bags.”
Still, and nevertheless, most Americans probably still consider magick of all kinds superstition at best and dangerous at worst. (The reason for adding the “k” to magic is to distinguish it from illusion tricks performed by amateur and professional entertainers. The purpose of “magick” is to alter reality by supernatural words and gestures, etc. It is basically synonymous with occult practices.)
The other day I was browsing in a local and very large public library. There I saw a whole wall of books selected out by the library itself displaying books about the occult, including how to practice magick. There must have been a hundred such books on that wall and it was clearly intended to promote Wicca and the occult and magick. I doubt that the public library would ever devote the same kind of special display space to Christianity.
Around the same time I happened to see in the entry way of a major chain bookstore a large display similar to that in the library—at least fifty books about Wicca, the occult, magick and similar subjects. I have never seen such a display in that bookstore chain’s stores about Christianity; I doubt it could ever happen.
Very near where I live is a privately owned “occult shoppe” that specializes in crystals and their power to heal—body, mind and soul. Such stores are scattered all over the American landscape now and their customers are often very “mainstream” people, not at all the stereotype (or caricature) of “occultist.”
I do not have space here to offer a full critique of Wicca or neo-Paganism. I will just say that I (speaking my personal but considered opinion) do still consider them essentially superstitious and therefore sad. I find it especially sad that public librarians and managers of mainstream bookstores choose to promote them.
It is still my considered opinion, based on my own research into the subject, that modern Wicca and other forms of neo-Paganism are not what they claim; they are inventions of 20th century anti-Christian romantics. They are not true revivals of pre-Christian European religions as they claim although there may be in them echoes of those.
I will add that I am concerned about the ethics of Wicca and Neo-Paganism, both and all of which tend to promote the one ethical “wrede” or maxim: “An ye harm none, do as ye will.” Some Neo-Paganism, under the influence of Alister Crowley, have adopted as their ethical principle: “Do as you will shall be the whole of the law.” I have even heard Wiccans (in person, speaking to my classes) claim that the Wiccan wrede is equivalent to the biblical “Golden Rule” (“Do under others as you would have them do unto you.”) In my considered opinion, that comparison is ridiculous.
I have no quarrel with Wiccans or other neo-Pagans practicing their (in my opinion) superstitious religions (and they are religions, make no doubt about it) among themselves without threatening or harming anyone. My quarrel is with allegedly bright, educated librarians, especially public librarians, promoting magick with large, brightly lit, special displays of books that allege to teach people how to worship the Mother Goddess and how to practice magick and divination. And with bright, educated managers of secular (allegedly neutral) bookstores promoting magick and occultism in the entries to their bookstores WHEN I know they will never use that space to promote any form of Christianity.
I could go into much detail here about my personal experiences with Wiccans. I invited several to speak to my classes. I have been in serious (not merely commercial) Wiccan “shoppes.” And I have engaged in conversations with Wiccans of various kinds and traditions. Most of them have been kind and reasonable people—except when it came to their beliefs about the supernatural and methods of manipulating both nature and the supernatural through magickal means.
I believe it was G. K. Chesterton who said that when people stop believing in God they don’t believe in nothing but in everything and I would add “anything.”
Whether this rise of occult superstition is “the church’s failures coming home to roost” or not is not my purpose here. That may be for another blog post. I will just say it is very possible.