An Atheistic Critique of Wicca

Blogging atheist Eric Steinhart, writing at Daniel Fincke’s Camels with Hammers, turns his rhetorical guns on Wicca. He thinks that a “woo-free Wicca” might be tolerable.

There are a number of separate posts, and I have not read them all. But I get the impression that he is engaging with a very limited number of books, chosen more or less at random from the Llewellyn catalog, plus something by the late Stewart Farrar.

The irony is that there are indeed a huge number of books about Wicca, yet everyone calls it a religion of experience, “embodied religion,” and so forth. I am not sure that Steinhart gets that part. Has he been in circle? Has he experienced the fire and smoke and music of a large festival?

I don’t mean that either experience would “convert” him, nor should they. And he probably would respond that they merely activate different parts of the brain, which has nothing to do with all those imaginary gods, etc.

What interests me here too is that his postings provide another data point in the increasing role of contemporary Paganism — and Wicca (broadly defined) as its largest segment — as the new religious “other.”

What people like Steinhart have yet to work out is that the rhetorical starting points are different when talking about polytheism, animism, etc. than when talking about the scriptural religions.


18 thoughts on “An Atheistic Critique of Wicca

  1. This is purely my emotive reaction:
    So what he’s saying to Wiccans is “Your religion might be tolerable if you practice it the way I tell you to…” Which is irritating enough from within my faith.

    I have no problem with atheists, but I find that when they decide to pick apart religions, they themselves are ignoring their own central point: “not belief” versus “belief.” If you don’t believe in a divine force, you just don’t, and no religious package or program is going to provide you with proof otherwise. Also, it’s extremely unlikely to provide you with “disproof” from within a religious context, and really, going after it is a highly circular waste of everyone’s time, since as an atheist, you already don’t believe and nothing presented to you should really sway you.

    This new assumption that ALL religions are opposed to the discoveries of science is also annoying, but mostly I blame that on the religious people rejecting it.

  2. This looks like an interesting series – thanks for the alert! I’m looking forward to following along… but I should point out that Eric Steinhart appears to be the author of this series, rather than Daniel Fincke.

  3. “What people like Fincke have yet to work out is that the rhetorical starting points are different when talking about polytheism, animism, etc. than when talking about the scriptural religions.”

    Thank you for saying this, and this is what irks me about athiests in general. I realize I’m generalizing, but it seems that their point of view is solely informed by monotheism and the book religions. Often atheism to me seems like a reaction against the book religions.

  4. As a quick point of clarification, the posts on atheism and Wicca which have run over the last 4 weeks on my blog and which will continue into the new year are by guest contributor Eric Steinhart and not by me.

  5. “On the one hand, the god and goddess are real spiritual persons; on the other hand, they are merely symbols that help you to experience your own biological connection to nature. On the one hand, the Wheel of the Year is the story of the god and goddess; on the other hand, the Wheel merely reflects natural cycles and affirms observable regularities in nature.”

    I think this line from the critique is one of the most interesting ones because it highlights something about atheism that bothers me. Why can’t you just take two positions at once? Why does he put so much stock in “de-mythologizing” religions such as Wicca that already have such strong naturalistic components? Is there any intrinsic value to be gained by stripping it of religious metaphors and stories in favor of something that looks like an abstract submission for a psychology journal?

  6. Thank you for saying this, and this is what irks me about athiests in general. I realize I’m generalizing, but it seems that their point of view is solely informed by monotheism and the book religions. Often atheism to me seems like a reaction against the book religions.

    If you read through the entire series you will see that Eric is going to great pains to argue against this mistaken bias in atheistic writing. He is looking at Wicca from numerous angles including its metaphysical parallels to philosophical atheistic naturalism and Wiccan engagement with contemporary cognitive science. He’s written numerous posts which have delineated points of contrast with the Abrahamic religions.

    For a full list of posts in the series so far, please see the posts listed at the end of the inaugural posts in the series:

  7. Chas –

    Thanks for the interest in my writing about Wicca on Camels With Hammers. You’re right that I’m not a Wiccan — I’m an outside scholar, trying to do my best with the available literature.

    One way Wiccans can help me is by pointing me to good literature. I’m using books by the Farrars, Buckland, Starhawk, Cunningham, MacMorgan, Cuhulain, Sabin,and Silver Elder; for secondary literature, Clilfton, York, Davy, Adler. I’ve mentioned all of these writers in my posts (and, Chas, I was directed to many of these writers by your own work). If you’ve got more or better literature, please recommend it so I can do better.

    It’s fair to say that I’m doing the very first philosophically serious assessment of WIcca, and that my series of posts is the very first effort to try to analyze the conceptual structure of Wicca. Most philosophers regard Wicca as a joke — I do not. There is much in the religion that I find extremely profound and beautiful, yet much that I also find that deserves honest criticism.

    Wicca makes many contacts with very old and deep philosophical ideas; most Wiccans are not aware of these contacts. I’m revealing these contacts. Indeed, I’ve been very positive about Wicca, suggesting that it may serve as one of the foundational pillars of a novel atheistic nature-religion.

    One commenter suggested that it looked like my posts were defining a novel Wiccan tradition – that’s not my purpose, but I replied by suggesting that if there were such a tradition, it could be called “Athenic Wicca”, for the goddess of wisdom. And you’ll note that I offended zillions of atheists when I said I thought there were highly rational structures in Wicca.

    On the one hand, at least to a rationalistic philosopher, it appears that Wicca is covered with woo; on the other hand, I’d now say that there is in Wicca, underneath that coverning, a philosophical depth that is as significant as that of the Abrahamic religions. I believe I’m the first to make and to be willing to professionally defend that claim.

    Wiccans: you can help me out by pointing me to better sources, and correcting my mistakes.

    – Eric

    1. Eric,

      If you are looking for a “novel atheistic nature-religion,” there is no need to try to disassemble Wicca to fit into your philosophical categories.

      Instead, read Bron Taylor’s Dark Green Religion. Although not avowedly atheistic, it is perhaps more compatible.

      As for me, I think of how one of my intellectual heroes, Julian “the Apostate,” steeped in the Platonic tradition, referred to Christians as the “atheists.”

      1. Well, philosophers like to disassemble things, and, insofar as ideas are presented to the public, they’re freely available for philosophical disassembly.

        Yes, Dark Green Religion is a fine book, and I’ve spent lots of time with the religious naturalists (Crosby, Peters, Raymo, Goodenough, Stone, etc.). But note that I’m not looking for anything — on the contrary, I think an atheistic nature-religion is emerging by itself in the US. I’m merely pointing to some novel religious movements. My interests are conceptual, logical, structural. Wicca is fair game for analysis.

        But you seem to be suggesting that Wicca ought to be left alone. As it grows, public scrutiny is going to come — and my criticisms, I think, will look pretty soft. Wicca is going to have to defend itself in the public square. Of course, Wicca might just remain a small fringe movement, culturally self-enclosed. Where do you stand on this?

    2. Sorry for butting in, but what you’re talking about sounds a lot like Humanistic Wicca. If you want to look at it a bit more, I recommend reading this blog because it has really tried to bring Wiccan, pagan, and polytheistic humanists together:

  8. Of course Wicca is open to scrutiny. There is a lively section within the American Academy of Religion devoted to contemporary Paganisms, and they are also examined within other learned societies.

    A lot of us know about our Platonic root, for example, which is one of several roots, right there with Victorian and Edwardian literary roots.

    Sociologists are doing multi-year longitudinal studies — and so forth.

    What some of the commenters seem to wonder is if you realize that your are not dealing with an Abrahamic monotheism. For example terms like “belief” and “faith” and “scripture” carry no weight in contemporary Paganism.

    And, I must say, “woo” is a little disrespectful.

    But the major point of my post was to say, look, another sign of Wicca’s emergence in the religious marketplace is that the evangelical atheists have taken note of it, instead of merely brushing it off as a crazy cult or something.

    1. I’m not an evangelical atheist – I’m extremely critical of atheism. (And there are plenty of non-theistic concepts of the divine that are perfectly fine with me.). I’m a philosopher, that’s all. You’re right to mention the AAR and the sociologists. But so far no other philosophers besides myself (as far as I am aware) have bothered to look at Wicca. Thus there have been literary and social studies, but no conceptual or logical analysis.

      It’s odd that my posts appear like I’m confusing Wicca with Abrahamism, since I’ve been working pretty hard to stress that it’s not Abrahamic (and I have explicitly denied that Wicca is a faith, or that it has scriptures — some of the commenters have said those things, but not me). In fact, what I find most fascinating about Wicca is that it’s not Abrahamic. It has a radically different type of religious grammar – and for that it deserves credit. So I’m confused – e.g. my posts on the Wiccan ultimate deity indicate that it’s a radically different concept of the divine than one finds in Abrahamic religions. I say over and over again to the incredulous atheists: please stop confusing Wicca with Christianity, please stop projecting theistic or Christian or Abrahamic concepts into it, the conceptual system is different, etc.

      As an analyst, I look for deep structure underneath surface structure. I am looking underneath the Wiccan mythos for its logos. (And I use these terms in their philosophical senses only, not in their theological senses.) I’m making a claim that nobody has made before: Wicca is not merely mythos; on the contrary, it has a logos, it contains a logical deep structure. Nobody in the academy has yet bothered to discuss that.

      For instance, over the coming posts, I’ll be offering a philosophically defensible interpretation of the Wiccan god and goddess as certain conceptual roles (rather than as spiritual people). This is an example of a logical deep structure under a mythic surface structure. And I did the same in showing how the Wiccan ultimate deity maps onto natura naturans. It’s tough to defend transmigration; but palingenesis is much more defensible. Thus I would argue that the Wiccan mythos of transmigration lies over the logos of palingenesis.

      Still, I really do want to be corrected and criticized by those who have an inside awareness of Wicca (or other neo-pagan practices). And I do apologize if “woo” is disrespectful; my intent is to be critical, not disrespectful. That said, my philosophical job includes criticism for what is irrational as well as praise for what is rational.

      1. “I’m making a claim that nobody has made before: Wicca is not merely mythos; on the contrary, it has a logos, it contains a logical deep structure. Nobody in the academy has yet bothered to discuss that.”

        As editor of The Pomegranate, I would interested in a paper addressing that structure.

  9. Cynthia

    As a wiccan who is also a dabbling philosopher THANK YOU for doing this, I get picked on quite often from my own local pagan groups because I ask so many questions and make comparisons to other existing myths, archtypes, religions,themes etc….I dont think having these universal elements makes Wicca any less unique or powerful. I also think that we ( as wiccans) are not going to be really accepted as a ‘real’ religion to many until we grow a bit of a thicker skin about other scholars/faiths researching it. Ironically when I was Christian I learned more about it reading John Dominic Crossan then I ever learned in many years of parochial school. As much as I hate to admit it there is alot of ‘fluff’ or ‘woo’ out there in wicca, not in its core, but in how people like to embelish on their almost supernatural abilities, or take certain author’s publications as if they were handed over by the Gods themselves and undoubtable/untouchable…so until I can feel the emotions of a tree, psychically bond with my cat and focus my mental and bodily energy enough to form an actual(measurable) energy structure I cant really say I’m wiccan. I don’t think I ever will, and thats OK by me. Keep up the good work, I’ll be enjoying the lite reading *wink*

  10. Lonnie

    Eric, back when I maintained a blog I spent quite a bit of time discussing some of the philosphical underpinnings of Wicca and Neopaganism. Indeed, while it’s obviously easier to focus on one significant branch of the Neopagan movement (Wicca), I think that the philosophical roots of Neopaganism are clearer when you consider the movement as a whole. I’ve argued that Neopagans are in many ways are a form of new Romanticism (which was the philosophical root of most Neopagan thought). What makes it so significant is actually that it challenges the very arbitrary boundary between theism and atheism. Most contempory debate starts with an assumption that the Devine is automatically supernatural (i.e. superior to Nature and seperate from natural forces). While many neopagans do believe in a supernatural, overall the movement has said there is no effective difference between the natural world and the world of the Divine. In other words, even if you strip off all the “woo” and Gods, Godesses, or any mention of a potential afterlife the religion(s) are relatively unharmed. Belief in a supernatural then is not an essential part of Neopaganism because inherently they adopted the philosophical roots from Romanticism which challenge the very idea that there is something more “super” than “natural”. Indeed the sublime (or sub-natural”) is a more apt term when looking at the more spiritual aspects of Neopaganism. (Insert standard disclaimer here that no generalization applies to all Neopagans, blah, blah, blah…)

    1. Lonnie

      Oh, and this was written Before Coffee, so please forgive all egregious spelling and grammar mistakes…

Comments are closed.