“Nonsense draws evil after it.” — C. S. Lewis
My encounters with modern Witchcraft
How this book came to be written
I first heard the rumors of modern-day “witchcraft” in the summer of 1968, back when I was still a denizen of the counterculture.
I had “turned on, tuned in and dropped out” of law school at the University of Texas in 1965 to follow the psychedelic/occult/eastern religious promises of experience and enlightenment. The currents of cultural change washed me westward, and I eventually landed in California — first in Los Angeles, then in San Diego, and finally in San Francisco and the Haight-Ashbury for the grand psychedelic carnival they called “the Summer of Love” in 1967.
By the following summer, I had left “the City” behind and was living among the redwood trees in the coastal rainforest of Northern California — one of many refugees from the corruption and exploitation that had overtaken the counterculture with dizzying rapidity. One balmy evening I gathered with a group of friends to share some food, companionship and conversation. Among those assembled was a traveler, recently arrived from a visit to several communes on the East coast, including one in New York state. The pilgrim held our attention as he told of meeting a group of people who actually — and openly — called themselves “witches,” who followed the old nature-gods, and (as he put it) “do magic, and make potions and cast spells and all that stuff– but for real.” He said that he could have been initiated and become a “witch” himself if he had been willing to extend his visit, but he felt that he was “on a different path”, and so continued his journey.
The reaction of his listeners (myself included) was a curious mix of aversion and fascination. In part we were taken aback that anyone would adopt such a negative label on purpose, but in equal part we were intrigued at the hint of deep secrets and dark, mysterious powers. In short, we were both repulsed and drawn — and drawn in part because of the repulsion. In retrospect, both of those reactions appear to be typical, and both have plainly played a part in the appeal and spread of the modern Witchcraft movement.
That dinner party brush with modern Witchcraft left a deep impression on my mind, but it was the last time I had occasion to think about the subject for several years. By the Fall of 1969 I had became a Christian — among the first to be touched by a wave of spiritual conversions that swept through the counterculture in the early 1970s (dubbed later by the media as the “Jesus movement”).
From the beginning of my Christian commitment, I tried to look at my previous (occult) beliefs through the eyes of my new (biblical) worldview. As a participant in the spiritual explosion of the 1960s, I knew that I had been part of something that was more than just a passing fad. I understood that the forces it had unlocked would profoundly affect our future. And I realized that my immersion in the counterculture gave me a unique opportunity to understand what was happening, and to communicate to my fellow Christians about it.
In 1973, with those concerns in mind I founded the Spiritual Counterfeits Project (SCP) — an evangelical ministry and think-tank based in Berkeley, California — to chronicle and critique the growing influence of Eastern and occult spirituality in our culture. Our intention was to keep watch on the expanding legacy of the counterculture as it worked its way like leaven through society.
And Berkeley was the perfect place to do the watching. Located on the eastern shore of the San Francisco Bay, with its world-class University, ideal climate and rich cultural mixture, Berkeley is a global crossroads — a place where people, religions, philosophies, ideologies, and movements from all over the world come together to compete for attention, adherants and influence. At that time, northern California was also a center for the post-sixties spiritual ferment that was already generating the “Human Potential Movement,” the “encounter group” craze and other forms of secularized spirituality.
Although it attracted less publicity, the collapse of the ‘60s counterculture also stirred up the beginnings of the Neopagan movement on the west coast. By the mid-1970s, signs of the emerging movement began to appear on the University of California’s Berkeley campus — which is where I first noticed it. Neopagan activists distributed leaflets attacking Christianity and praising paganism; they also held demonstrations on behalf of various pagan deities, idols and fetishes — such as parading a papier-mache “sacred phallus” effigy or “golden calf” statue through the University’s main public plaza, accompanied by a retinue of followers in (presumably) “pagan” costume.
I made note of the phenomenon and began to collect information about it for SCP’s files, but I paid no special attention to it otherwise. The pagans I had encountered seemed more like campus pranksters than serious religionists. And frankly, the idea of breathing new life into into something as thoroughly dead as ancient pagan religion seemed far-fetched, to say the least. Mind-manipulating “maximum leaders” like Werner Erhard, Sun Myung Moon and Jim Jones loomed much larger as threats to the social fabric — and to the souls of countless followers — than a few burnt-out hippies invoking ancient deities by the light of the silvery moon.
Ironically, Neopaganism turned out to be the slow but steady tortoise in the New Religions race, while the big, attention-grabbing groups like TM, est and the Moonies turned out to be flashy rabbits that faded before they got to the finish line. As the decade of the ‘70s drew to a close, Margo Adler wrote Drawing Down the Moon (first published on Halloween in 1979), her widely praised account of modern Witchcraft’s origins and its development in the the United States. The book quickly went to paperback and multiple reprintings. Its success was an announcement to the world that Neopaganism was here to stay, and intended to be a presence in the world of American religion.
Neopaganism’s staying power — and its steady growth — became increasingly evident during the 1980s. That reality was sharply underlined for me in 1986. In March of that year, SCP held a “Conference on Deception and Discernment” at an evangelical Church in Berkeley, attended by several hundred pastors and laymen from across the country. I delivered one of the plenary lectures, on the the subject of “Witchcraft and Neopaganism.”
A local Neopagan elder came to the event, prepared to challenge what he assumed would be a typical, misinformed fundamentalist attack on his beliefs. In fact he found nothing to challenge in my lecture, but he spoke up in response to a different speaker and publicly offered a contrary interpretation of Neopaganism. As a result, some of the Christians (myself included) stayed behind for an animated conversation that continued long after the main presentation was over.
Several things emerged from that encounter. One was the awareness that stereotypes and misunderstandings of Christianity are as common among Neopagans as stereotypes of Neopaganism are alleged to be among Christians. Another was the realization that both sides would benefit from a more structured conversation in which they could explain their beliefs and practices, and compare them with one another.
The result was a year-long series of “Christian/Wiccan Dialogues” that ran from the Summer of 1986 through the Spring of 1987. The two sponsoring organizations were the Spiritual Counterfeits Project and the Covenant of the Goddess, one of the earliest and most influential Neopagan/Witchcraft organizations. We held a series of bilateral discussions, roughly one per month, with each side providing three or four people for each meeting. Each session dealt with a different topic, and a different aspect of our contrasting worldviews.
The topics for discussion included:
- the nature of Ultimate Reality
- the nature of Nature
- the nature of Human Nature
- the nature of Evil
- the nature of the spiritual-human interaction (prayer versus ritual magic)
- natural versus revealed religion
- the interaction of personality and spiritual practice (“salvation” versus “transformation”)
- ethics and morality
- pluralism (one path or many?)
- authenticity (what is a Witch? What is a Christian?), and
- issues of gender and sexuality
This is not the place to summarize the content of those discussions, but they were enlightening for all concerned. The Christians and Neopagans found little to agree upon, but they both learned a great deal about one another. Of equal significance, both sides learned how to communicate in the context of spiritual disagreement. One of the most important things we discovered is that, even in opposition, we could interact with mutual respect. We could be on opposite sides of a cultural conflict — and both sides acknowledged that, indeed, we are — without an equivalent level of personal hostility. For the Christians, it was a matter of taking seriously Paul’s admonition that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood . . .” (Eph. 6:12), and applying it in a flesh and blood situation.
It took a lot of work — and a lot of honesty — on both sides to make that process work, but it not only proved to be possible, it proved to be worth the effort. Real communication was not only opened up, it has continued. I have maintained many of the contacts I formed during those dialogues — not just as an exercise in religious civility, but because I have found my Neopagan acquaintances to be intelligent, creative, thoughtful people who are interesting to know and enjoyable to talk to.
I have also found them invaluable as windows into their own religious world, which I will never be able to enter directly. Because of my background, there is much in Neopaganism that I can empathize with. I have no trouble understanding why people are drawn to modern Witchcraft, or why they find it religiously fulfilling. I spent much of my formative adulthood in the counterculture — I am of that “tribe,” so to speak. I might well be a Neopagan myself today, except for the fact that my “spiritual evolution” was interrupted by an encounter with Christ.
But interrupted it was, and as a result, I cannot partake of the spirit (or spirits) of their religion. There are clear limits to the rapport that I can have with Neopagans. I can find common ground with them in some of the things that we share as part of our common, created humanity, but I cannot take part in their religious observances, share in their religious sentiments or enjoy their religious fellowship. I can never see their community from the inside, as they do, as a member and a participant. To help me overcome that limitation, my Neopagan friends have been generous with their information and their commentary. The reason for their openness, as one of them recently explained to me, is that while they are “disappointed” that I don’t “approve” of their religion, they do trust me not to distort the information they provide simply in order to cast them in a negative light. They know I will tell the unsensationalized truth about their beliefs and practices (thus clearing them of some of the the standard slanders) — even though that also includes a highly critical assessment of their religion.
One of the reasons they have that level of trust is because of the work I did to follow up on our 1987 dialogues. In 1991, I wrote a 20,000 word article, “Witchcraft — From the Dark Ages to the New Age,” for a special issue of the SCP Journal. The gist of that article was to demonstrate that the popular Neopagan version of their own history is a fantasy and a fabrication — that there is in fact no historical connection between the witchcraft of the Middle Ages and the modern religious movement that bears the same name. Despite my critical view of Neopaganism, the article got high marks from Neopagan readers for its fairness and accuracy. I sent a copy of the Journal to one of my contacts, a woman who is both a practicing Witch and an academically trained and published historian. She responded:
Overall I think it’s excellent. I felt that you understood Neo-Paganism well. The tone was good — opinionated (ie., it’s clear you’re a Christian, and writing primarily for a Christian audience) yet not biased. I also thought that you hit on the major threads that created modern Paganism, and covered them succinctly. In general, I found it extremely accurate and well-written.
– (Gibbons, 1999)
After publishing that 1991 article, I turned my research attention to other topics (including UFOs, Deep Ecology, “angel” mania and the “Recovery” Movement). I presumed that Neopaganism would continue to develop more or less along the lines I had indicated in the article, i.e., as a new but growing branch of the American “alternative religions” tradition.
And then along came the rest of the 1990s.
The sudden appearance and wild popularity of witchcraft in the popular media during the latter half of the decade took everyone by surprise — including Neopagans. Starting in 1996, there was a series of sensational media productions featuring witchy characters and Neopagan themes. In the space of two short years, we were treated to no less than five Hollywood productions that all became major pop-culture events. They were: the blockbuster teen movie The Craft in 1996, the debut of three new TV shows (Sabrina the Teenage Witch in 1996, Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 1997 and Charmed in 1998), bracketed by another mega-movie, Practical Magic with Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman, also in 1998.
That late 1990s media explosion set off an enormous wave of interest in Neopaganism, and a surge of experimentation that took many people well beyond mere curiosity. In short order, Witchcraft was transformed into a pop-culture phenomenon, and “Wicca” became a teenage fad that didn’t fade, but turned into an enduring trend.
Those developments swelled the ranks of Neopaganism far beyond its own “structure” (such as it was), which was based on the various self-proclaimed Witchcraft groups and other organizations making up the active core of the movement. Suddenly, all of that was overshadowed by happenings in in the popular media. Suddenly, there were tens of thousands of (mostly young) people running around calling themselves “witches,” and taking their ideas about what that means, not from a tradition, or a teacher of tradition, but from the internet, or a movie, or a TV show. The movement had become a mass movement almost overnight, and it was quickly growing beyond anyone’s ability to control, or direct, or even to measure.
Today, and Beyond — PantheaCon 2003
In 1998, I retired from active participation in the ministry of SCP. I did not, however, retire from my interest in Neopagans and Neopaganism. I have watched with fascination as the Neopagan Movement continued to change and develop. It has not only grown, it has also matured, as the young radicals who shaped Neopaganism a generation ago have settled into adulthood.
The extent of those changes became evident to me when I had an opportunity to attend “PantheaCon 2003,” a major pan-pagan conference held annually in the San Francisco Bay area. I had been invited by one of my Neopagan friends — a Wiccan Elder and High Priest. He knew I was writing a book on Neopaganism and suggested that I could get a first-hand impression of the current state of the movement by going to the conference.
It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. The conference was held in a large, convention-oriented hotel in Silicon Valley (roughly 2 hours commute from my home) over a long weekend. I attended one full, twelve-hour day on Saturday (from 11 AM to 11 PM). It was an exhausting but enlightening experience.
I had gone fully expecting to encounter sights that would make me avert my eyes, and people that would make me veer out of my way to avoid them. But there was very little of that. The “freaky fringe” was indeed present (including the “Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence” the flamboyant, transvestite, antichristian “street-theatre” group) but they were relatively few and far between.
My overwhelming impression of the conference-goers is that they were almost boringly normal. Many had families with children, ranging from toddlers to teens. You could have walked into any of the seminars I attended and thought you were in a graduate studies class at Berkeley or Stanford. That aspect of the experience was superficially reassuring, but it was also more deeply disturbing. It was disturbing because it signified to me, not just that Neopaganism is “mainstreaming” itself, (the obvious observation) but also that the “mainstream” is “paganizing” itself.
The Neopagan movement on the west coast was started some thirty-five years ago by people who were young, disaffected and thoroughly countercultural. They were rejecting (and rebelling against) Christian morality, Christian values, Christian culture and the Christian religion. As part of that package, they were also rejecting middle-class, bourgeoise values and everything that went along with them.
Today, many of those same people have spouses, families and children, and the middle-class values of stability, security and prosperity are looking a lot more like virtues, and a lot less like vices to them now. As a result, they are prepared to move back into the mainstream of society in search of a friendly haven for their family and community concerns.
And of course, they are carrying their paganism with them into the mainstream. But more than that — and more importantly — they are finding that the mainstream culture they are rejoining today is a lot more accomodating to them than the culture they left behind thirty-five years ago. Thirty-five years of cultural devolution have moved the mainstream far toward paganism at the same time that Neopagans have been moving toward the mainstream. The reality is that the Neopagan Movement and the larger society are approaching each other at warp speed (historically speaking), and in fact, have already started to blend and blur at their boundaries.
Twenty years ago, Christopher Nugent made an eerily prophetic observation. I marked it at the time, and it has stayed with me:
As the idols descend, we have a convergence of the culture and the occult, a kind of “occulturation” . . . I would conclude that our culture may be becoming so demonic as to render particular cults redundant and superflous.
(Nugent, 1983, pp. 178, 180)
We are virtually at that point today. And the interesting thing is that what brings all these forces together — and binds them together — is their common refusal of Christ and Christianity. That same common choice is what gives unity and direction to all the various “lanes” of “the broad highway that leads to destruction” (Matthew 7:13). The non- (and anti-) Christian elements in our society are discovering a new solidarity in their shared rejection of Christ and the gospel. At PantheaCon, that point was brought home to me in a powerful way.
“I Hear That Jesus Loves Me…”
Several musical groups gave performances during the conference. On Saturday night, I dropped in to hear one of them, a singing duo called “Moonrise.” The performers were two matronly Witches in their late 30s or early 40s, pleasant in appearance and demeanor, modestly dressed and modestly musically talented. In a different context, they could have been soccer moms at a picnic, with long hair, long dresses and wire-rimmed glasses. In clear and lilting voices, to their own guitar accompaniment, they sang the following lines:
“They say that Jesus loves me;
But I think he loves in vain;
He must go unrequited,
for on me he has no claim.
For the man who would commend me
Must wear the horns and let me be.
My skin, my bones, my heretic heart
are my authority.”
There were several more verses in a similar vein, but one verse is all it takes to get the point across. You can’t put it more plainly than they did: “Hey God . . . I reject your love . . . go away and leave me alone . . . I am not one of yours.”
Rejecting Christianity has been a basic part of Neopaganism from the beginning. It is one of several ways the movement has traditionally expressed its rejection of the main society. But today, in a fascinating historical irony, it is also one of the ways the movement finds itself increasingly in harmony with the main society, which is in hot pursuit of its own Christ-rejecting agendas.
Attending the conference was an intense experience — both demanding and enlightening. By the end of the day, I had learned what I came to find out. The state of the Neopagan movement is healthy, confident and growing moreso every day. The first generation of elders has begun passing its paganism on to the next generation of offspring This means that what was once a band of religious oddballs has become a functioning religious community. It has become an active, self-sustaining alternative culture, a fact that has enormous implications for the future of our society — and for the place of Christianity within it. The Neopagans are on a roll, and they know it. They sense that the Christian culture is in full retreat, and they are advancing energetically as it recedes. 
I believe we are on the verge of social and spiritual changes that will make the last half century look like the proverbial sunday school picnic. The Church is headed into a future that is unlike the past we have known, and Christians by and large seem unprepared to deal with the challenges that lie ahead of us.
On a superficial level, the mainstreaming of Neopaganism will mean learning to deal with Neopagans in routine social situations, including the workplace — i.e., the Witch next door, or the Druid in the office down the hall. On a deeper level, it means that our culture as a whole is becoming more receptive to pagan values and more hostile to Christian ones — a process that will greatly change the way that we relate to the society around us.
That, I believe, is the real significance of modern Witchcraft and the Neopagan Movement. It is less important in its own right than it is as a herald and symptom of a larger transformation. We are well into a slow-motion cultural upheaval of historic proportions, and the rising fortunes of Neopaganism reveal much about the nature and extent of those changes.
This book, I hope, will help Christians to understand some of the changes that have already occurred — and to prepare for the rest of them before they actually arrive. To cope with the challenges before us, Christians not only need to understand Neopaganism, we must also be prepared to engage it. On a personal level, we must understand Neopaganism in order to guard our families from its influence; we must also be prepared to engage Neopaganism should it nevertheless appear within the family sanctum. On a cultural level, we need to actively counter the false picture of Christianity that Neopagans often present, as well as countering the false history it is based on. On a spiritual level, we must be able to actively present the gospel message to the Neopagan community in terms that they can hear and understand.
But before we can take the truth to Neopagans, we must first understand the truth about them. We need to know who we are talking to before the conversation starts. We owe them that respect in order to gain a hearing for the message that we bear.
- More than one Neopagan of my acquaintance has objected to this characterization. Neopagans don’t sense any obvious weakening of Christianity’s presence or strength in our society. They are very aware that their movement has made important social gains over the last several decades, but they don’t sense that their social opposition has significantly weakened. On the contrary, it seems to them that the strength of the so- called “Christian Right” is increasing rather than diminishing. If anything, from the Neopagan point of view, Christianity is more assertive of its social and political presence today than it has been for some time.
The key to these differering views, of course, lies in the differing points of view. Neopagans sense an increased stridency from Christians, but cannot tell that it stems from a perception of weakness and vulnerability. Neopagans see the imposing forms and institutions of Christian culture, but cannot tell that their spiritual substance has fled; after all, if they don’t know what the substance of Christianity is, they are not likely to notice when it’s gone. Therefore they do not and cannot see that those imposing institutions are hollow facades, reamed out and ready to be brought down by their own empty weight, in response to the right kind of social shock — or the right convergence of social forces.
© Copyright 2004 by Brooks Alexander. Posted at Apologetics Index by permission. [Details]
Printed Copy of Witchcraft Goes Mainstream
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