January 16, 2001
Wicca and Equal Opportunity Criticism
-- Martin E. Marty
When "high culture" folks -- the well-educated and the well-off -- knock"organized religion" and "the institutional church," they and the mediathey favor (and who favor them in turn) do tend to give a free ride tononmainstream, New, New Age, non-Western expressions and movements. Ex-Catholics sometimes fight Father Pope and Mother Church, and mild Protestantsmay attack the churches of their childhood. Many of them become apologistsfor Zen, Hindu movements, ancient and occult and metaphysical forces, andholistic or alternative healthdoms.
While some in the advance guards are learning to be a bit more patient with the traditional faiths, there are also signs of disillusionment withtheir alternatives. Currently the glare of examiners throws lighton one of the more fashionable alternatives: Wicca. Some supportersof legislative chaplaincies and of teaching about religion in public schoolshave stepped back a bit and been shocked by the presence of "witches" insuch settings. And many took Wicca's own claims about faith at facevalue.
Wicca's self-professed history has come under sharper examination inrecent years. Typical of the exposés is one by Charlotte Allen,tireless pursuer of false advertisers and chancy offerings in the fieldof religion, who writes of "The Scholars and the Goddess" in January's*Atlantic Monthly* We can point to some highlights here. Wicca andother "neopagan" faiths, according to one scholar, claim around 200,000American adherents. This alternative religion claims a long history,with some roots going back behind those of more established world religions. But Allen takes a second look.
Allen takes on leaders like Starhawk, a self-described Witch who claimsthat, at 35,000 years of age, hers is "perhaps the oldest religion extantin the West." She and her colleagues claim to have discovered ancientgoddess worship roots. Allen presents many easily discovered facts,and comes to her bottom line: "In all probability, not a single elementof the Wiccan story is true. The evidence is overwhelming that Wiccais a distinctly new religion, a 1950s concoction." And there is noscholarly finding "that any ancient people ever worshipped a single, archetypalgoddess -- a conclusion that strikes at the heart of Wiccan belief."
Now one can hear the cries of "Unfair to Wicca!" and "Unfair to Goddesses!"while one is not likely to hear similar protests when the religion attackedis, for example, Catholicism or Episcopalianism. Is it fair for *Sightings*to give publicity to exposés like Allen's? This is not the placeto start a crusade against neopaganism, but it is the place for culturalcomment suggesting that the religion game is best played on a level playingfield, with free rides for no one.
Charlotte Allen's article is available in its entirety on the web siteof the *Atlantic Monthly*: go to http://www.theatlantic.com/cgi-bin/o/issues/2001/01/allen.htm.