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Most people think of October 31 as Halloween, but for a rapidly growing number of Americans the date is celebrated as “Samhain” (saw – en), one of the eight Wiccan (and pagan) “sabbats.”
Wiccans and other pagans belong to one of the fastest growing religions in the United States. The 2012 U.S. census shows an increase in self-identified Wiccans from 8,000 in 1990, to 134,000 (2001), to 342,000 (2008). Those who call themselves pagan, but do not worship as Wiccans, numbered 140,000 in 2001 and grew to 340,000 in 2008.
Paganism and Wicca are highly individualized belief “systems” that today almost defy definition. Patti Wigington, a “soccer mom,” PTA vice-president, and witch from Ohio explains: “With no central authority, anyone who publishes a book or creates a Website, can say whatever they want about the faith.”
Paganism was traditionally defined as a belief outside the Abrahamic religions. But for most people today, paganism is associated with no fixed beliefs or with polytheism or pantheism and earth worship. Wiccans (from Celtic "sorcerer” or “witch”) practice witchcraft or “magick,” revere nature, celebrate the seasons and hold a vast array of different theological viewpoints, but they often worship a goddess (the “Great Mother”) and her male consort (the “Horned God” of the sun and forest). The one thing they all agree on is that they don’t worship, or even believe in, Satan.
For pagans and Wiccans seeking fellowship or communal worship, the Pluralism Project at Harvard University lists over 300 “Pagan Centers” across the United States.
At least several dozen universities have recognized pagan student associations – MIT, Penn State, Yale, Drexel, Syracuse, Bryn Mawr, University of Texas (Austin), University of Georgia, Wellesley, Smith, Boston University, University of Chicago, Northeastern, Ohio State, the University of Connecticut, Rensselaer Polytech, and Worcester Polytech, to name a few.
The Jesuit Loyola University Chicago may be the first Catholic school to give official recognition to a club for pagan students. Jill Kreider, its organizer and president, explained the purpose of the newly formed “Loyola Student Pagan Alliance” as helping students at the Catholic college “find the God they seek, not just the one featured in the Bible,” as Loyola student Dominic Lynch recently reported in The College Fix.
Lynch also quotes Ms. Kreider’s email to him, justifying the recognition: “Loyola’s mission states that ‘seeking God in all things’ is one of the main tenants [sic] of the university.” It is doubtful, however, that this characteristic aspect of Ignatian spirituality would include seeking after the Great Mother and the Horned God.
The Pagan Alliance was never intended to be a club exclusively for modern pagans and Wiccans; it was planned as an umbrella group for them, as well as members of “minority faiths” (listed as “Buddhists, Taoists, Shinto practitioners, Santeras, etc.”) and those who fall into the category of “spiritual but not religious,” i.e., anyone whose beliefs or lack thereof were not officially represented by other student groups.
The College Fix reports that the Alliance was forced to drop “pagan” from its name and thus became the “Indigenous Faith Tradition Alliance.” One may applaud Ms. Kreider’s wish to make everyone feel welcome, regardless of their beliefs. Yet one can’t help but picture a group meeting of Buddhists, Taoists, Santeras (i.e., Santería priestesses – what? no male practitioners allowed?), Wiccans, and pagans all arguing over whether Wiccans should even be allowed in the club. It is not an “indigenous” religion at all. It was basically created in the 1950s by the self-proclaimed Druid Gerald Gardner, an Englishman. In the early 1960s, a protégé of Gardner,
Raymond Buckland, introduced Wicca to the United States, earning the title “the Father of American Wicca.”
Many colleges and universities also have practicing priestesses and Druids on staff. Boston College, for example, is home to the Druid Christopher LaFond, ex-Catholic and “born again Pagan," psychic, and astrologer. Although his bio on a site of leading druids and witches refers to him as a full-time professor of Spanish at BC, the college lists him as a part-time lecturer.
An Iowa State Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Women’s Studies Nikki Bado is a practicing high priestess of Wicca and author of “Coming to the Edge of the Circle: A Wiccan Initiation Ritual.”
Chas S. Clifton, an English professor at Colorado State University (Pueblo) until his retirement in 2012, and a practicing pagan since 1972, authored several books on paganism, including the 2004 book “Her Hidden Children: The Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America.”
Laura Wildman-Hanlon, a practicing Wiccan, is a psychology lecturer at the University of Massachuetts.
Giana Cicchelli, Wiccan priestess, is a sociology professor at Fullerton and Santa Ana College, in Orange County.
There are also pagan college chaplains, like Mary Hudson, chaplain at Syracuse University’s Hendricks Chapel: Both she and her husband are pagans. Ms. Hudson left her IT job with Syracuse to be a full-time pagan chaplain. She describes Syracuse’s chapel enthusiastically: "Hendricks Chapel is an amazing place. When it was built it has no religion or symbolism. It embraces all faiths in an equal manner, seeking justice and truth, serving as an open forum to people who don’t believe they have a voice." Chaplaincy to pagans is available to help both monotheistic and polytheistic pagan students.
Worcester Polytech offers spiritual counseling and support to pagan students with the help of Rev. Cheryl Leshay, Unitarian Universalist minister and chaplain: “At WPI she shepherds students in Unitarian Universalist, Atheist, Humanist, Jewish, Wiccan, Pagan, Native American/Christian, and emerging faith groups.”
There is a seminary for witches: www.cherryhillseminary.org and an online Witch School, run by Rev. Don Lewis, to train practitioners of Wicca and other "natural" religions. Rev. Lewis boasts of "some 250,000 students enrolled in online classes." Its headquarters recently moved from Illinois to the more appropriate venue of Salem, Massachusetts.
How does one account for this explosion of interest in Wicca and paganism among academics and students?
There’s the "power" a practitioner derives from esoteric knowledge of "the Craft."
Every initiate is clergy – a priestess or the male counterpart, a warlock/shaman/druid/priest.
The theology is malleable and is up to the preferences of the individual. The only "rule" is "An’ it harm none, do what thou wilt" (As long as it doesn’t hurt anyone, do whatever you want). This is a similar formula to Satanist Aleister Crowley’s "Do what thou wilt is the whole of the law." But it is wholly unlike Augustine’s injunction "love, and do what thou wilt." What Augustine meant is that we must love God first and let all our actions originate from our love for God. This assumes that our duty is to love God and our neighbor both, through concrete acts of kindness.
Christianity demands self-mastery and personal sacrifice for others, aided always by the grace of God, while the Wiccan formula puts us under no obligation to be anything but selfish, provided we don’t harm others by our actions. The Satanic formula bestows an unfettered power to do whatever wrongs one pleases.
Apart from our call as Catholics to make disciples of all nations and the fact that leading a Christian life is beneficial to individuals, families, communities and the common good, are there reasons why colleges – especially Catholic colleges – might not want to adopt a position of neutrality toward Wicca as it would toward other faith traditions?
Consider this: Wicca is a religion only in the loosest sense of the word, having been cobbled together from various sources in the 1950s, having no defined doctrine (as each practitioner is free to believe what he or she wants) and largely practiced alone. With over 5,600 books on Wicca available from Amazon (many of them instructional), with incantations and spells to learn, loads of paraphernalia to acquire, practicing Wicca seems time-consuming, perhaps even to the point where individuals could be distracted from living with and for others – what we are meant to do and where our true happiness lies. Finally, by dabbling in magick, calling in spirits, seeking supernatural powers, people might inadvertently invite evil spirits (demons) into their lives. While individual Wiccans may be "good people" and "good citizens," it is difficult to see any nuggets of truth or goodness in Wicca itself.
Let’s remember to pray for the young people drawn to such undemanding "indigenous faiths," that the truth and beauty of Catholicism will shine brighter than the false promises of paganism and Wicca.
Susan E. Wills is spirituality editor of Aleteia’s English language edition.