2016-06-30
In 2000, Don Frew, a Wiccan in Berkeley, California, got a phone call from a local Protestant pastor. Did Frew know, the pastor asked, that he had been nominated to the board of directors of an interfaith center in San Francisco--and would he consider joining? Please?

Did they care he was a Wiccan? Nope. Did they care that he was, in fact, a Covenant of the Goddess priest? Nope. Did they care that he wears a pentacle around his neck and calls himself a Witch? Not at all.

It turns out, in fact, that acceptance by mainstream religious leaders, says Frew, "has never been an issue." That was not always true for Wicca, the faith that Frew follows. In the last 20 years, some Wiccans have lost custody of their children, their jobs, their homes after their faith became public.

But today, as Wiccans celebrate Samhain, the new year and one of their most sacred holidays, their spiritual path is enjoying vast popularity and widespread acceptance. This weekend, Samhain celebrations and rituals will happen all across the country-and many Wiccans expect record turnout.

"I am glad that the religion is thriving," says Selena Fox, high priestess of Circle Sanctuary, a Wiccan organization near Mt. Horeb, Wis. Her group's Samhain event has grown from 12 people in 1974 to a three-day gala of 200 people, most of them Wiccans. In addition to a healing ritual, a purification ceremony and a sacred walk through the woods, there will be music, dance and pumpkin carving for the kids. "Spiritual needs are being fulfilled," says Fox. "We are not only keeping alive the old traditions, but also working with those traditions in new ways."

Wicca--or witchcraft, or simply "the craft"--is a modern faith with roots in the past. While Wiccans may trace their religious heritage to a variety of sources, most generally agree the faith was founded in the 1940s by a British man who drew on pre-Christian European practices. Today's Wicca is goddess-based and earth-centered, revering the divine in nature and in human beings.

In Wicca, there is no centralized religious authority, no creed or dogma to which Wiccans must ascribe. Some Wiccans worship together in covens, though scholars estimate half worship alone, as "solitaries". It is a religion of self-realization and self-responsibility. Wiccans have only one rule--the Wiccan Rede - "An thou harm none, do what thy will."

As more people embrace Wicca, the religion has become more visible and, to some extent, more mainstream. Wiccans like Frew and Fox now sit on interfaith councils in cities from Seattle to Orlando, and from New York to Los Angeles. Wiccan characters have popped up in television shows like "JAG" and "Charmed" and even in children's videos like "Scooby Doo and the Witch's Ghost."

Wicca may, in fact, be the fastest growing religious movement in the United States. According to the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey, the number of people who identified themselves as Wiccans grew from 8,000 in 1990 to 134,000 in 2001--a growth rate of 1,575 percent.

And many scholars believe the numbers are actually much larger. Dr. Helen Berger, co-author of "Voices from the Pagan Census: A National Survey of Witches and Neo-Pagans in the United States" (University of South Carolina Press, 2003) puts the number of "serious practitioners" at 250,000. But when she reckons the number of dabblers--people who take a little Wicca with their Christianity, Judaism or other tradition--the number could be much higher.

That growth has brought both challenges and opportunities. As Wicca sits on the cusp of broader acceptance, its practitioners have some serious questions to deal with. Can a religion that recognizes no religious authority organize itself enough to handle its growth? Can a religion that emphasizes personal spiritual experience maintain its authenticity? Can Wicca as it is practiced today survive its own success?

"The growth has been so explosive that what structure there is cannot accommodate it," says Chas Clifton, a Wiccan and editor of Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies. "We are like a third world country that can't put up enough elementary schools fast enough let alone send someone to university."

Here are some signs of Wicca's acceptance:

  • This year's gathering of the Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions in Barcelona included 60 Wiccan and Neo-Pagan participants, more than ever before. In 2003, the first Neo-Pagan, a Wiccan, was elected to the council's board of trustees.
  • Pagan Pride Day, usually held in late September, has seen its celebrations grow from 18 in 1998 to 117 this year.
  • The Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans (CUUPS), a group of Wiccans and other Neo-Pagans within the Unitarian-Universalist church, has grown to 70 chapters in 36 states.
  • Wiccans and Neo-Pagans have their own seminary in Bethel, Vermont.
  • The number of academics who study Wicca and other forms of Neo-Paganism has grown to the point that they plan to seek formal recognition as a group from the American Academy of Religion.
  • Books about Wicca have migrated from fringe publishing houses to big commercial publishers, including Harper SanFrancisco and Random House.
  • Spiral Scouts International, a Boy and Girl Scout-like organization, now has "circles" of little Wiccans and other Neo-Pagans in 22 states.
  • In Puyallup, Wash. officials cancelled Halloween school celebrations out of concern that witch costumes and decorations might be offensive to local Wiccans.
  • What's behind the popularity? Scholars and followers recite a laundry list, from the spread of the women's spirituality movement to interest in the environment. They also cite the popularity of Wicca among teenage girls.

    "Some of them are drawn to the magic and they stay for the faith," said Berger, who is researching teen Witches. One young woman told Berger she investigated Wicca because she wanted to turn her boyfriend into a toad. "But then she started reading about the religion and it made sense to her."

    Those teenagers take their interest in Wicca and other forms of Neo-Paganism off to college, and that has fed the rise in Wiccan scholarship. Wendy Griffin, who, with Chas Clifton, is co-editor of a new Pagan studies series from AltaMira Press, says more university classes on American religion are incorporating sections on Wicca and Neo-Paganism.

    "We are finding more Ph.D dissertations on the topic," she said. "These folks will the go on to find jobs at various universities and will take their interest [in Wicca and Neo-Paganism] with them." Clifton says he knows of undergraduate courses on Neo-Paganism that attract hundreds of students, and some websites list more than a hundred Neo-Pagan and Wiccan groups on college campuses.

    Add to that the maturation of the first generation of Wiccans, who came to the faith in the 1960s and have raised children who have never known any other religion--and you get what was once a new religious movement knocking at the door of the American mainstream.

    "This was a religion of the baby boomers in the United States," said Dr. Sean McCloud, a professor of religion and modern culture at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. "But now you have the echo boomers involved. This is a sign that Wicca has survived the first stage of being a new religion and is now going into the next phase."

    But can Wicca as it is practiced now survive the next stage? What model should it look to? These questions are now being debated among Wiccans.

    For Frew, now middle-aged but a Wiccan since age 12, the growth raises questions of identity. For the first time, he says, there is a Wiccan laity--people who identify as Wiccans because they made a connection to the faith through books or the internet, but who don't yet know enough to practice the religion correctly. Wiccan priests, priestesses or elders have usually completed a course of study under a teacher of their own choosing.

    "Are they part of us or not?" he said. "And it raises serious questions of obligation. What are our responsibilities to these people? When I signed on to become a priest I never signed on to have a laity. It's a situation we haven't seen before."

    Starhawk, who, as author of "Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess," helped popularize Wicca and other goddess traditions, agrees that the new growth is "a constant challenge." But she says Wiccans can avoid the "traps of mainstream religion" many fled by strengthening their foundation in personal communion with the divine.

    "We must always remember that our basis is in people's real, direct experience of that deep interconnectedness of all things, which we call the goddess," she said. "We each have to walk through that doorway ourselves."

    Dagonet Dewr is executive director of Pagan Pride Day and executive editor of newWitch magazine. He says Wicca doesn't need an institution to enforce Wiccan orthodoxy because "there ain't no such bird." But it does need an organization that would hold accountable its clergy--many of whom are self-declared or recognized as such by their own small band of followers.

    "We need an institutional model that hasn't been designed before," he said. "One that doesn't include dogma but does include accountability, responsibility and a way to interface with the public."

    To some extent, that is the concern of Cherry Hill Seminary, the movement's first higher education institution, where students in the public ministry program take classes in leadership and administration. Judy Harrow, a Cherry Hill professor, says Wiccans can look to the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) for a model of how a once-fringe group can successfully go mainstream. "Quakers have always had this clear sense of who they are and what they are about," Harrow says, describing their work in global peace and social justice as "a clear, consistent voice."

    "What I think Wiccans and Pagans in general should be bringing to the conversation is a clear, consistent voice for environmental justice based on the fact that our primary religious devotion is to the goddess, or mother earth."

    What most often happens to new religious movement at this junction, according to scholars, is that they start obsessing about organization and no longer revel in the mystery of their origins.

    But Angie Buchanan, a Family Tradition Pagan, rejects the idea that this is Wicca's fate because the faith itself is so different from those that have come before. "There is no sacred text," she said. "We are non-prophet. We do not have a template that we are trying to push out on people. We are about self-responsibility."

    How Wiccans deal with these issues will determine the shape the faith will take in the next generation and the next, scholars say. "Are Wiccans going to be able to stop [their religion] from becoming routinized?" asks Berger. "They claim it won't and maybe not. But it would be new if it did not."