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TASA 2001 Conference, The University of Sydney, 13-15 December 2001

Sociology of Religion in Postmodernity:


Wicca, Witches and the neo-pagan Myth of Foundations

Mark Bahnisch
Queensland University of Technology

Abstract
One very salient feature of postmodernity is the erosion of authority and community. Detraditionalisation
is the driving force of modernity, and in religious life, is often associated with secularisation. Capitalism,
and the commodification of values and lifeworlds, undermines the authoritative ethics of modernity, and
contributes to the decentring of values and lifestyles in a postmodern world. While modernity was pre-
eminently the sphere of the secular, a variety of new religious movements and re-traditionalising
movements within established religions such as Catholicism and Islam seek to respond both to the ethical
neutrality of modernity and its collapse into consumerist individualism in postmodernity. This paper will
take Wicca (modern witchcraft) as a case study, and argue that Wicca itself reflects postmodern forms of
spirituality and organisation even as it challenges aspects of postmodernity. The purpose of the paper is
to stimulate debate about contemporary religious movements within the wider context of the sociology of
modernisation and postmodernisation.

Introduction: Postmodernity and Religion


The sociology of religion has, like sociology generally, concerned itself with the transition from
pre-modernity to modernity, and the nature of modern society, and now, the putative transition
to postmodernity. The social division of labour and the differentiation of society into semi-
autonomous spheres with their own rationality and ethics is now less rigid than it once was.
Distinctions which are foundational to modernity (such as the public and the private) are now
being blurred.

One very salient feature of postmodernity is the erosion of authority and community.
Detraditionalisation is the driving force of modernity, and in religious life, is often associated
with secularisation. Capitalism, and the commodification of values and lifeworlds, undermines
the authoritative ethics of modernity, and contributes to the decentring of values and lifestyles in
a postmodern world. While modernity was pre-eminently the sphere of the secular, a variety of
new religious movements and re-traditionalising movements within established religions such
as Catholicism and Islam seek to respond both to the ethical neutrality of modernity and its
collapse into consumerist individualism in postmodernity. This paper will take Wicca (modern
witchcraft) as a case study, and argue that Wicca itself reflects postmodern forms of spirituality
and organisation even as it challenges aspects of postmodernity. The purpose of the paper is to
stimulate debate about contemporary religious movements within the wider context of the
sociology of modernisation and postmodernisation.
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Postmodernity, desecularisation and new religious movements


Assisted by the rationalising processes of bureaucracy and functional organisation of society on
one hand, and the tendency of capitalism to undermine values by turning everything into
commodities on the other, secularisation led to a disenchantment of the modern world.
Precisely because of this disenchantment – and because established religions have shared in the
undermining of organisational structures and traditional beliefs – new religious movements have
arisen over the past 35 years or so to reenchant the secularised world.

New religious movements have become an established part of the religious scene. In particular,
religious movements associated with the symbolism of the New Age have become very
prominent. Aldridge (2000: 209) suggest that this umbrella term for a range of movements –
some more cult like, some fairly commercialised, some that claim to provide a total theological
and spiritual outlook and others that don’t – is elusive to define. However, he identifies some
‘salient themes within it that can be identified’. Importantly, he claims that these themes add up
to a rejection of Enlightenment reason and the ‘ethos of western rationality’. To the degree that
the individualist themes of American culture are increasingly globalised, the emphasis on self
actualisation and its spirituality characteristic of the New Age are often portrayed as being a
retreat from the political and the communal common to postmodern culture as a whole. Rather,
Heelas (1996) argues that the New Age spiritualises some trends which are already present
socially.

The New Age, for Heelas (1996: 138), is a radicalised response to postmodern uncertainty and
the destruction of identity in the world of late capitalism. Niklas Rose (1990: 147) argues
‘capitalism breeds individualism, the obsession with therapy being the corollary of the illusion
of atomistic self-sufficiency’. So New Age ideas have a particular appeal for those who want to
reject materialism, concerned about the breakdown of traditional communities in a life world
characterised by risk, institutional failure, ecological disaster, and a lack of a sense of spiritual
home or place. Berger et al (1974: 74-86) argue that mainstream institutions ‘cease to be the
‘home’ of the self’ and ‘the individual seeks to find her ‘foothold’ in reality in herself rather
than outside herself’. Max Weber (1948) long ago argued that the ‘iron cage of modernity’ had
a causal affinity with the sorts of people we can become. To Weber, what was lost in modern
society was human freedom. However, if in a postmodern world, we privilege freedom over
certainty, what can be lost is the unreflexive and unproblematic nature of identity and character
formation. Seen in this sociological perspective, then, the New Age provides a recipe for
identity formation in an uncertain world, and a response to the dissatisfaction of conventional
identity choices where they can be seen as having lost their meaning.

So, we have the beginnings of a sociological explanation for the rise of New Age religious
movements. Neo-paganism and Wicca are often conflated with New Age movements, and there
are indeed some affinities. However, much of the Neo-pagan and Wiccan literature rejects an
identification with the New Age per se. If Wicca and Neo-paganism arise from similar
responses to the social changes which have brought forth the New Age, what is different about
them? What is the specificity of Wiccan and Neo-Pagan religions?

Neo-paganism and Wicca as religious movements


Neo-paganism is an umbrella term. Paganism classically refers to the polytheistic religion of
the Greek civilisation and the Roman Empire before Christianity became the Roman world’s
official religion. Paganism (in its classical sense) and neo-paganism (as its postmodern revival)
are a body of non authoritative beliefs that reject the separation of spirituality and materiality,
and in various ways ascribe divinity to nature and the earth. Under this heading, there is a great
Sociology of Religion in Postmodernity: Wicca, Witches and the neo-pagan Myth of Foundations 3

diversity of religious movements and beliefs. Unlike Christianity, there is no orthodox dogma,
hierarchy, or canonical scriptures. Neo-paganism is in fact characterised by an anti-
authoritarian and anarchist spirit – accepting a plurality of belief systems, practices or ‘paths’.
As Hume (1997) points out, attempts to impose even a lowest common denominator statement
of agreed beliefs have proved controversial. Wicca, or the Craft, is perhaps the predominant
social form/belief system within neo-paganism. Wicca is definitionally separate from
Witchcraft – whether understood as magical practice without religious beliefs or forms of
practice which do not consider themselves Wiccan.

Wicca is ethos and experientially centred. Though there are in some paths articulated ‘laws of
the craft’, most of these are reducible to the principle ‘an it harm none, do what ye will’, and the
law of the three fold effect (though again these are not universally accepted). In the literature it
is emphasised that the key aspect is the experience of magical working, rather than the liturgical
text of the ritual (Gardnerian rituals, for instance, have a semi-canonical form in texts such as
Farrar & Farrar (1996). A contrast can be drawn with Catholicism where sacramental rituals are
efficacious regardless of the personal characteristics or beliefs of either the administering priest
or congregation – what is important is the correct observance of liturgical form and the validity
of the priest’s ordination. So while some Wiccan traditions prescribe degrees of initiation and a
relatively formalised approach to ritual, it is nevertheless the case that the magical ‘energy’
released in rituals is a function of the subjective rather than objective aspects of practice.

Wicca in tension with Christianity and Enlightenment rationality


I will return to the question of the status of the foundational myths of Wicca. But briefly, it is
established in historical scholarship that many traditional practices of healing and divination
were characteristic of folk practice (Thomas 1971). Regardless of the ‘truth’ of the genealogy of
modern Wicca from pre-christian paganism (‘the old religion’), it can be established that much
traditional knowledge was devalued and delegitimised in early modernity through the
professionalisation of medicine and the articulation of the scientific worldview. To this degree,
then, the practices of healing and self actualisation characteristic of Wiccan practice stand
outside, and in many ways in opposition to, the rationalisation of scientific knowledge. Yet
Adler (1986) has argued that many Wiccans and neo-pagans reject the simple dichotomy
between science or technology and nature. Rather, what they are concerned to oppose is the
ideology of scientism or the dominance of instrumental and calculative forms of rationality. In
other words, the neo-pagan worldview by and large asks questions about the social impact of
technology and rationalisation, and whether these technologies of bio-power are incomplete
without an appreciation of the non-rational aspects of life. This is consistent with a questioning
of enlightenment narratives and the hegemony of the meta-narrative of progress which has been
eroded since the 1960s. Combined with an anti-authoritarian ethos, a concern with both
individual and communal actualisation, and a distrust of conventional identity formation, Wicca
has many of the same social characteristics as New Age movements, but without the dogmatism
and knee-jerk opposition to rationality characteristic of many New Age belief systems.

Again, whether or not one believes Wicca to be a traditional or an invented religion, it seeks to
disrupt the unity and hierarchy characteristic of Christianity. As a polytheistic system of belief,
it seeks to reinstate the feminine principle through worship of the Goddess (who can be named
in many ways), sometimes to the exclusion of the male divinity. Many Wiccan traditions would
argue that deities are archetypal or representations of humanity or nature, and that people can
themselves be divine. Wicca, then, combines a rejection of authoritarianism, dogmatism and
hierarchy in religious practice, with an emphasis on the sacredness of the earth. Its tension with
Christian rationalities can also be observed in the rejection of the mind/body split, the
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revaluation of the body, the emphasis on the feminine, and the positive value accorded to sex
and sexuality.

Wicca and the Feminine


Christianity has long been identified with the patriarchal. Although in theory, the Christian God
is ungendered, in practice much religious language and imagery (ie Father in Heaven, etc.) has
tended to ascribe masculinity to the divine. The controversy over the ordination of women
priests in the Anglican communion, and its wash over into the Catholic Church is also
illustrative of what many have seen as the irredeemable and structural patriarchy of Christianity
as a social institution. Wicca was first articulated in its modern form by Gerald Gardner (of
whom more later). In the Gardnerian tradition, the ‘apostolic succession’ is transmitted through
initiation by priestesses. Much Gardnerian Wicca relies on notions of polarity and balance
between male and female principles, an idea that has many affinities with the thought of Carl
Jung. From the 1970s onwards, with the rise of second wave feminisms, there have come into
being a number of women’s groups and a general rise in Goddess worship understood as a
specifically feminist principle. Adler demonstrates that attitudes to gender issues are less rigid
among Wiccans and neo-Pagans and many of the most prominent Witches such as Starhawk, Z
Budapest, and more recently Fiona Horne, have been women who have articulated a feminist
ethos through their writing and religious practice.

More broadly, scholars such as Irigaray (1974) and Grosz (1994) argue that much of Western
thought, and in particular, humanistic and social scientific knowledge, is deeply implicated in
hierarchical dichotomies between the masculine and feminine. If this is so, then the
reinstatement of the feminine as divine, and the disruption of the mind/body distinction with its
devaluation of women as irrational and corporeal, then Wicca’s belief system poses
epistemological challenges to the phallocentralism of religion and society both. The
identification of the Earth as Goddess found in some Wiccan spirituality also adds impetus to
the broader challenge of Wicca and neo-paganism to rationalities of modernity. This challenge,
and the anti-authoritarianism explicit in religious practice, is not without its political
implications.

A genealogy of Wicca
It is just as well to say at the outset of our genealogy of Wicca that ‘myth’ is not a derogatory or
pejorative word in social science, or ought not to be. Myths are narratives, stories that give
shape to understandings of the world, create shared social knowledges, and foster social
belonging and community. Often they provided the bases by which a community or social
group understands itself and define the terms of legitimate debate within that collectivity.
Wicca and neo-paganism have developed their own myth of origins, and its genealogy is
interesting for its own sake, as well as for what it reveals about Wicca as a social phenomenon.
It is also of use for the study of sociological questions about tradition and detraditionalisation
which throw a light onto the study of new religious movements as a whole.

Social institutions often derive legitimacy from a myth about their origins. Hobbes and Locke
in the 17th century sought to ground liberal democracy in a story about the nature of society
before government came into being – a story with the moral that a social contract to give power
to government was necessary to prevent strife, disorder and early death! Similarly, religions
often place much emphasis on their foundation by an individual in history, or their immemorial
origins. The Catholic Church justifies its own distinctiveness and its claim to be the universal
church by arguing that only its bishops have an unbroken line of continuous succession with
Sociology of Religion in Postmodernity: Wicca, Witches and the neo-pagan Myth of Foundations 5

Christ. Whether Jesus thought he was ordaining Peter as a Bishop is of course highly
questionable – which is what gives this particular story its status as myth. It serves to provide
legitimacy, and to include and exclude from the social boundaries of the church as institution,
and also from salvation or damnation according to the strict dogmatic or theological position.

The Wiccan story of origins is that the religion of the common people before Christianity
descended from neolithic beliefs organised around the worship of a fructifying earth goddess.
In country areas, this religion persisted under the disguise of Christianity, and it resurfaces in
the evidence given to the witch trials in early modern Europe (an argument particularly
associated with Margaret Murray). The burning times saw the disruption of the old religion,
and only isolated elements survived. Gerald Gardner, a former public servant and devotee of
the occult was initiated into a surviving English coven in 1939. Gardner published several
books, and with others such as Doreen Valiente, systematised the rites of Wicca and filled in the
gaps where the tradition was lacking or fragmented, drawing on esoteric traditions such as
Aleister Crowley’s and books such as Charles Leland’s Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches
(1899). This was the original Wiccan Book of Shadows, most of whose text is published in
Farrar & Farrar’s A Witch’s Bible (1996). Some other Wicca or Witchcraft traditions descend
directly from the folk religion of countries such as Romania or Italy. Other Wicca traditions
were articulated after the Gardnerian, and the creativity continues today, with Wicca paths
associated with particular mythologies such as the Celtic or Greek, feminist and Goddess
centred Wicca paths. Broadly speaking, over the past twenty years ago, there is much more
eclecticism in Wiccan practice, with authors such as Scott Cunningham (1988) and Fiona Horne
(1998) suggesting that practitioners be inventive in their creation of rituals and their practice of
Wicca.

I would argue that in many senses, the debate about the truth of this narrative is irrelevant. But
there are some things that are accepted by scholarship, and others that are more doubtful.
Certainly, the theses advanced by Margaret Murray in her book Witch-Cult in Western Europe
(1921) have been largely discredited. Much of the material which Gardner drew upon derives
from late 19t h century anthropological perspectives, and in many ways it seems that the
scholarship of a century ago has informed modern neo-pagan practice. As Adler (1986) points
out, other aspects of Wiccan practice derive directly from some of the early texts used – the
term ‘esbat’ was almost certainly invented by Murray. There are some incontrovertible facts –
for instance the existence of a Western Occult tradition deriving originally from Kabbalistic and
later alchemical practices which influenced much of the practice of ritual magic in the 19th and
20th century. Some of this tradition found its way into Wicca through Gardner’s borrowings
from Crowley. Similarly, as I argued earlier, there is no doubt that much folk magic and
healing knowledge existed in pre-modern Europe, and it is quite possible (but not demonstrable)
that some of this descends to Wicca, or that there may be witches whose traditions have been
handed down through their families. Nor can it be gainsaid that Goddess worship was an aspect
of pre-christian religion.

Towards sociological conclusions


Firstly, a non-authoritarian or dogmatic religion will necessarily develop according to different
social processes than one that claims access to a single ‘truth’. The myth of origins referred to
in the last section has a unifying role. Adler (1986) argues that many Wiccans are sceptical
about the truth of the myth – but this is beside the point. In some ways, the modern
development of Wicca and its postmodern growth demonstrate that it is responsive to
characteristics and needs of postmodernity. It would seem to be much more productive to
theorise Wicca in terms of the unifying power of central narratives and beliefs in holding
together a theologically and ritually diverse body of people, whose commitment to Wicca is
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largely non-institutional. The codification or canonisation of knowledge and ritual by Gardner


and Valiente undermines itself through the open ethos embodied within that canonised form. So
what we have, really, is a religious movement without hierarchy or dogma. The myth of origins
provides both legitimacy, and the basis for an argument that Wicca can develop truly
postmodern forms of practice.

This then leads to the social significance of Wicca. Wiccan beliefs and practices have a close
affinity with features of postmodernity. Postmodern organisational forms, and the
spiritualisation and individualisation of self actualisation on the one hand, and the desire for
local or virtual community on the other, both ring true with broader postmodern trends. The
questioning of dominant forms of rationality undermines the rationalising processes of
secularisation, and brings about a re-enchanted world which hearks back to the old, but which is
also distinctly new and a reaction to modernity. The eclecticism of Wicca and neo-paganism
relates to the privileging of local over universal knowledges characteristic of postmodernity.
The concern with the construction of identity is only meaningful in a modern (not in a pre-
modern) world, but the form this takes in Wicca and neo-paganism is only possible once
postmodernity has undermined the certainty and security of modernity’s life projects. The
revaluation of the feminine in the divine is also of great significance. On one level, this
represents a disruption of modernity’s foundational distinctions of mind/body and
public/private. On another, it represents broader social moves where the organisation of
particular aspects of social life is not restricted to a masculine or male logic.

To conclude, then, an analysis of neo-paganism and Wicca can be very productive – both in
terms of rethinking sociological categories of secularisation and religious development, and also
in explicating a key aspect of postmodern social life. The category of secularisation, and for
that matter other central theoretical concepts of the sociology of religion such as the church/sect
distinction are called into question by the emergence of religious movements such as Wicca. In
many ways, what a sociological study of Wicca invites is a rethinking of the relationship
between religion and postmodernity, if not with modernity itself. This paper has demonstrated
that Wiccan practices and beliefs consistently challenge key ideologies of modernity. It can be
argued then, that Wicca is a quintessentially postmodern religion, and conversely, that the
flipside of postmodernity’s questioning of rationalisation is a powerful attempt to re-enchant the
world.

This paper developed out of lecture material given in HUB145 Virgins, Saints and Sinners:
Explorations in the Sociology of Religion at QUT. I thank Clive Bean, Gavin Kendall and
Zlatko Skrbis for the opportunity to develop and deliver this new course. Thanks also to
Rebecca Shipstone and Michael Carden for very productive discussions on the topic and to
members of the Brisbane Witches e-list for feedback and suggestions on an earlier version of
the paper. Thanks also to Doug Ezzy for sending me a copy of his forthcoming paper on Wicca.
Sociology of Religion in Postmodernity: Wicca, Witches and the neo-pagan Myth of Foundations 7

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