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What is behind the increase in “witches” in the US?

The spread of paganism and witchcraft should have been expected; when traditional religion no longer provides us with meaning, we will seek it elsewhere.

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As the number of self-identified witches in the United States has surpassed the number of Presbyterians, it is helpful to recall G.K. Chesterton’s adage that when we stop believing in God, we begin to believe in anything.  A recent Pew Research Center survey found that about 0.4 percent of Americans identify themselves as Pagan or Wiccan, a significant increase over previous years. An estimated 1 to 1.5 million people say they practice Wicca or Paganism today, a rise from an estimated 8,000 in 1990, and 340,000 in 2008.

The increase in the number of witches parallels the decline in the number of Americans who identify as Christians, as documented by the most recent survey (in 2015) of more than 35,000 Americans by Pew. The survey found the number of Americans who describe themselves as Christian dropped almost 8 percentage points, from 78.4 percent in 2007 to 70.6 percent in 2015. During that same period, those who described themselves as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular” increased from 16.1 to 22.8 percent.

When the Pew data was released in 2015, NPR proclaimed the impending demise of religion, and a New York Times reporter used the data to resuscitate the long-discredited secularization theory to suggest that a more educated and affluent population will naturally reject religion. Claiming that the declines in Christian affiliation among the young, well-educated, and affluent are consistent with a general disenchantment of society, skeptics conclude that religion no longer provides meaning in an increasingly rational world.

Or does it? What NPR and the New York Times seem to forget is that we will always be seekers. We will always be searching for meaning in our lives. When traditional religion no longer provides us with that meaning, we will seek it elsewhere. The shift toward paganism and witchcraft should have been expected. Psychologist Jordan Peterson recently told an interviewer for a Catholic journal that 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche intended his statement, “God is dead,” as a warning against the atheism and nihilism of the Western intelligentsia: “When they lost faith in God, Marxism and then Nazism moved in to fill the void.” Peterson might have added environmentalism as the newest ideology—it is the ideology that celebrates the primal powers of nature that aligns so well with paganism and witchcraft.

Indeed, Wicca is the perfect religion for the times. It is an ideology that celebrates nature as the divine—idealizing the values it felt were lacking in modern society, such as enchantment and closeness to the natural world. It is a religion that views the unenlightened as predators intent on destroying the planet—and honors the “divine” within each of us. Introduced in the United States in the 1960s by Raymond Buckland and influenced by the earlier writings of Aleister Crowley, interest in pagan witchcraft grew rapidly during the height of the sexual revolution and the advent of the second wave of feminism. According to the work of Manon Hedenborg-White, pagan witchcraft in the United States merged with the women’s spiritual movement to create a less hierarchical and more political brand of Paganism. Prominent figures in this feminist brand of witchcraft included Zsuzanna Budapest, who founded her own branch of feminist separatist witchcraft that came to be known as Dianic. Later, Miriam Simos, better known as Starhawk, created a more “gender-inclusive” witchcraft. In Starhawk’s interpretation, the coven is a forum for women’s empowerment and the reinterpretation of both male and female gender roles.

Today, colleges and universities—including some of the most prestigious women’s colleges—host Wiccan student organizations. For example, Mount Holyoke hosts the Pagan/Wiccan Collective; Smith hosts the Association of Smith Pagans; Wellesley hosts the Pagan Students’ Group. Alma College in Michigan hosts the Alma Circle, and St. Olaf’s College hosts the Pagan and Alternative Religions Association. Likewise, several state universities have Wiccan organizations on their campuses. For example, Massachusetts’ Bridgewater State College has the Witches Interactive College Community Association, and Westfield State College hosts the Crescent Moon Society.

Beyond the college campus, Catholic News Agency points out that the hashtag #Witchesofinstagram has been used nearly two million times on Instagram, featuring images of crystals and pentagrams and people sharing their experiences as witches.

The federal government has allowed American military cemeteries—including Arlington National Cemetery—to adorn veterans’ tombstones with Wiccan pentacles. This began in 2007, when the Wiccan pentacle was approved after a lawsuit by the national ACLU that followed Wiccan family and clergy requests that had been formerly refused. Today, there are more than 60 non-traditional “emblems of belief” allowed on veterans’ tombstones including the Atheist Atom and the Hammer of Thor.

As the salvific message of Christianity has lost resonance for so many, we will see increasing numbers of seekers returning to the superstitious practices of the past. Many Wiccans have home altars, which serve as holding places for ritual tools as well as surfaces for spell-casting. Altars contain representations or symbols of the four elements including a candle for fire, salt for earth, a container of water, and a feather to represent air. In some ways, Wiccans are indeed attempting to “re-enchant” society. But in their rejection of the transcendent God of Abraham, Wiccans believe that the divine can be experienced directly and in this life. They are likely to be disappointed.


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About Anne Hendershott 87 Articles
Anne Hendershott is professor of sociology and director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is the co-author of Renewal: How a New Generation of Priests and Bishops are Revitalizing the Church (Encounter Books).

16 Comments

    • Thank you for the reminder – It is true that it is an “adage” that is often attributed to him because it captures the Chestertonian sentiment on what happens when one stops believing in God. There are several places when Chesterton writes (for example in Oracle Dog) of what happens when God is lost (he states clearly that “one loses his common sense”) etc… I think it is safe to say that the sentiment can be attributed to him – perhaps not the exact quote. That is why there are no quotation marks around what is published in the opening paragraph of this article. And it is described as an adage. Thank you for reading so closely–I, too, am a Chesterton fan and believe that the sentiments are his.

  1. “Peterson might have added environmentalism as the newest ideology – it is the ideology that celebrates the primal powers of nature”

    Ha ha, yes, let’s lump any attempt at forestalling human civilization’s disastrous abuse of its own natural resources with paganism. What a ‘subtle’ way to discredit people who are alarmed at dumping trillions of tons of plastic into the ocean on a yearly basis.

    • God is in control of nature and the world..You are naive if you think the push by big business and controlling elites for concern over the enviroment is real and not just an agenda to further destroy Christianity. Also its an agenda to control the world and bring us into a one world government system …They have been starting to push this early on; it was all a plan for world domination if you do your research..As far as the world it has been much colder and warmer in its history and there was no such thing as global worming then..

      • Whoa, I am reading some real hot takes here. It’s unsurprising that once you think the ‘one world government’ is out to get you, you associate everything that you don’t like as part of the same sinister cabal.

        I guess as long as we pray our rosaries we can continue to dump that plastic into the ocean – and that God will intervene in His biology to prevent fish from choking on that dissolved plastic? I’m sorry but I think our Lord has higher expectations for us as “Stewards” of His Creation. The fact that you immediately jumped into global warming talking points instead shows how thoroughly you’ve let propaganda seep into your mind.

        Isn’t it funny that we always say that God calls us to higher standards for everything else in our lives (morality, charity, holiness) – except for the stewardship in the environment, because all of the sudden that’s a part of the world where we DON’T have control over our actions? Medieval theologians would have laughed at such faulty thinking. Today it’s easier to see that that view is the result of decades of coordinated agitprop by business interests.

        • The article is about witches and the point made was how the constant media indoctrination of the enviroment is a way of leading us into pagan beliefs and witches. Have you ever looked up the United Nations websites concerning the enviroment? Its all pagan worship with hymns and prayers (prayer circles) and invocations to the earth…Sure keeping the enviroment clean is the right thing to do but it goes much deeper. Do some research and praying some rosaries is more important to God then the enviroment. Your worried about fishes but there are children who go to bed hungry everyday around the world . The African countries have been stripped and used by the elite who disregarded the people and let them starve? Are these the same people who are worried about the enviroment? I know we should do what we can for the enviroment but at the same time dont be naive about evil people in high places.

    • Taking care of the environment is one thing. But when it becomes an “-ism,” then yes, Dr. Hendershott is correct. Environmentalism is just another idolatry. And like all idolatries, it is both false and hypocritical. The most shrill voices in the environmentalist community are invariably those who squander the most resources. Example: Those who scream about the necessity to have only one or two children, in order to save Mother Earth, of course end up buying only new items for anything and know nothing about recycling. Large families, like mine, buy nothing new, and save, refurbish, pass down and reutilize everything.

  2. The recent show “Sabrina the teenage Witch” is blatantly satanic filled with blood sacrifices witchcraft and even a satanic baptism for sabrina to the beast. They even show the baphomet as Satan in person and all the media is praising this show as cool, different but a definite must see. The show is geared towards teenage girls with a 14 age rating and the series star is likeable and the show is definitely appealing to the eye visually but very demonic. This is what the world is coming too and why witchcraft is seen as cool and inviting to innocent people…The eye is the window to the soul and satan knows this..Also our own Pope is promoting Nature and the enviorment as something we must put on a pedestall which also does not help in pushing people towards pagan beleifs of the earth worship…They even had a light show on the Vatican which looked very satanic…

  3. The AC king comes when the evil people have become so wicked that they will accept him as their king.

    Daniel calls him the Lion Beast Man, when the Lion (England) has it’s Eagle(US) wings ripped off(War of independents) The Lion will stand up as a man and he will have the mind of a man, Daniel also calls him a prince and later a king.

    Daniel 8:23
    “In the latter part of their reign, when rebels have become completely wicked, a fierce-looking king, a master of intrigue, will arise.

  4. The REAL reason for the abominable increase in such evil is the fact that, unfortunately and to our great and abiding shame, witches are not burned at the stake anymore….

    …disease will abound when the cure is not applied.

    Hmmmm…oh well, where is a Pope Innocent VIII when you need one?

  5. As Venerable Fulton J Sheen said, the West is post Christian. It doesn’t mean that Christianity no longer exists, but it is no longer the prevailing belief system or the source of law and morality. Witness the resurgence of practices identified with paganism which were suppressed centuries ago primarily due to the influence of the Catholic Church: Abortion, exposing the elderly and infants (euthanasia), and pederasty (with the normalization of sodomy being a precursor to this).

  6. I’m reminded of some wise words from G.K. Chesterton, in his book, Orthodoxy:

    “Nature worship is natural enough while the society is young, or, in other words, Pantheism is all right as long as it is the worship of Pan. But Nature has another side which experience and sin are not slow in finding out, and it is no flippancy to say of the god Pan that he soon showed the cloven hoof. The only objection to Natural Religion is that somehow it always becomes unnatural. A man loves Nature in the morning for her innocence and amiability, and at nightfall, if he is loving her still, it is for her darkness and her cruelty. He washes at dawn in clear water as did the Wise Man of the Stoics, yet, somehow at the dark end of the day, he is bathing in hot bull’s blood, as did Julian the Apostate. The mere pursuit of health always leads to something unhealthy. Physical nature must not be made the direct object of obedience; it must be enjoyed, not worshipped. Stars and mountains must not be taken seriously. If they are, we end where the pagan nature worship ended. Because the earth is kind, we can imitate all her cruelties. Because sexuality is sane, we can all go mad about sexuality. Mere optimism had reached its insane and appropriate termination. The theory that everything was good had become an orgy of everything that was bad.”

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