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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