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TASA 2001 Conference, The Universitv of Svdnev, 13-15 December 2001

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One very salient Ieature oI postmodernity is the erosion oI authority and community. Detraditionalisation
is the driving Iorce oI modernity, and in religious liIe, is oIten associated with secularisation. Capitalism,
and the commodiIication oI values and liIeworlds, undermines the authoritative ethics oI modernity, and
contributes to the decentring oI values and liIestyles in a postmodern world. While modernity was pre-
eminently the sphere oI the secular, a variety oI new religious movements and re-traditionalising
movements within established religions such as Catholicism and Islam seek to respond both to the ethical
neutrality oI modernity and its collapse into consumerist individualism in postmodernity. This paper will
take Wicca (modern witchcraIt) as a case study, and argue that Wicca itselI reIlects postmodern Iorms oI
spirituality and organisation even as it challenges aspects oI postmodernity. The purpose oI the paper is
to stimulate debate about contemporary religious movements within the wider context oI the sociology oI
modernisation and postmodernisation.
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The sociology oI religion has, like sociology generally, concerned itselI with the transition Irom
pre-modernity to modernity, and the nature oI modern society, and now, the putative transition
to postmodernity. The social division oI labour and the diIIerentiation oI society into semi-
autonomous spheres with their own rationality and ethics is now less rigid than it once was.
Distinctions which are Ioundational to modernity (such as the public and the private) are now
being blurred.
One very salient Ieature oI postmodernity is the erosion oI authority and community.
Detraditionalisation is the driving Iorce oI modernity, and in religious liIe, is oIten associated
with secularisation. Capitalism, and the commodiIication oI values and liIeworlds, undermines
the authoritative ethics oI modernity, and contributes to the decentring oI values and liIestyles in
a postmodern world. While modernity was pre-eminently the sphere oI the secular, a variety oI
new religious movements and re-traditionalising movements within established religions such
as Catholicism and Islam seek to respond both to the ethical neutrality oI modernity and its
collapse into consumerist individualism in postmodernity. This paper will take Wicca (modern
witchcraIt) as a case study, and argue that Wicca itselI reIlects postmodern Iorms oI spirituality
and organisation even as it challenges aspects oI postmodernity. The purpose oI the paper is to
stimulate debate about contemporary religious movements within the wider context oI the
sociology oI modernisation and postmodernisation.
2 Mark Bahnisch
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Assisted by the rationalising processes oI bureaucracy and Iunctional organisation oI society on
one hand, and the tendency oI capitalism to undermine values by turning everything into
commodities on the other, secularisation led to a disenchantment oI the modern world.
Precisely because oI this disenchantment and because established religions have shared in the
undermining oI organisational structures and traditional belieIs 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 oI the religious scene. In particular,
religious movements associated with the symbolism oI the New Age have become very
prominent. Aldridge (2000: 209) suggest that this umbrella term Ior a range oI movements
some more cult like, some Iairly commercialised, some that claim to provide a total theological
and spiritual outlook and others that don`t is elusive to deIine. However, he identiIies some
salient themes within it that can be identiIied`. Importantly, he claims that these themes add up
to a rejection oI Enlightenment reason and the ethos oI western rationality`. To the degree that
the individualist themes oI American culture are increasingly globalised, the emphasis on selI
actualisation and its spirituality characteristic oI the New Age are oIten portrayed as being a
retreat Irom 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, Ior Heelas (1996: 138), is a radicalised response to postmodern uncertainty and
the destruction oI identity in the world oI late capitalism. Niklas Rose (1990: 147) argues
capitalism breeds individualism, the obsession with therapy being the corollary oI the illusion
oI atomistic selI-suIIiciency`. So New Age ideas have a particular appeal Ior those who want to
reject materialism, concerned about the breakdown oI traditional communities in a liIe world
characterised by risk, institutional Iailure, ecological disaster, and a lack oI a sense oI spiritual
home or place. Berger et al (1974: 74-86) argue that mainstream institutions cease to be the
home` oI the selI` and the individual seeks to Iind her Ioothold` in reality in herselI rather
than outside herselI`. Max Weber (1948) long ago argued that the iron cage oI modernity` had
a causal aIIinity with the sorts oI people we can become. To Weber, what was lost in modern
society was human Ireedom. However, iI in a postmodern world, we privilege Ireedom over
certainty, what can be lost is the unreIlexive and unproblematic nature oI identity and character
Iormation. Seen in this sociological perspective, then, the New Age provides a recipe Ior
identity Iormation in an uncertain world, and a response to the dissatisIaction oI conventional
identity choices where they can be seen as having lost their meaning.
So, we have the beginnings oI a sociological explanation Ior the rise oI New Age religious
movements. Neo-paganism and Wicca are oIten conIlated with New Age movements, and there
are indeed some aIIinities. However, much oI the Neo-pagan and Wiccan literature rejects an
identiIication with the New Age per se. II Wicca and Neo-paganism arise Irom similar
responses to the social changes which have brought Iorth the New Age, what is diIIerent about
them? What is the speciIicity oI Wiccan and Neo-Pagan religions?
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Neo-paganism is an umbrella term. Paganism classically reIers to the polytheistic religion oI
the Greek civilisation and the Roman Empire beIore Christianity became the Roman world`s
oIIicial religion. Paganism (in its classical sense) and neo-paganism (as its postmodern revival)
are a body oI non authoritative belieIs that reject the separation oI spirituality and materiality,
and in various ways ascribe divinity to nature and the earth. Under this heading, there is a great
Sociologv of Religion in Postmodernitv. Wicca, Witches and the neo-pagan Mvth of Foundations 3
diversity oI religious movements and belieIs. Unlike Christianity, there is no orthodox dogma,
hierarchy, or canonical scriptures. Neo-paganism is in Iact characterised by an anti-
authoritarian and anarchist spirit accepting a plurality oI belieI systems, practices or paths`.
As Hume (1997) points out, attempts to impose even a lowest common denominator statement
oI agreed belieIs have proved controversial. Wicca, or the CraIt, is perhaps the predominant
social Iorm/belieI system within neo-paganism. Wicca is deIinitionally separate Irom
WitchcraIt whether understood as magical practice without religious belieIs or Iorms oI
practice which do not consider themselves Wiccan.
Wicca is ethos and experientially centred. Though there are in some paths articulated laws oI
the craIt`, most oI these are reducible to the principle an it harm none, do what ye will`, and the
law oI the three Iold eIIect (though again these are not universally accepted). In the literature it
is emphasised that the key aspect is the experience oI magical working, rather than the liturgical
text oI the ritual (Gardnerian rituals, Ior instance, have a semi-canonical Iorm in texts such as
Farrar & Farrar (1996). A contrast can be drawn with Catholicism where sacramental rituals are
eIIicacious regardless oI the personal characteristics or belieIs oI either the administering priest
or congregation what is important is the correct observance oI liturgical Iorm and the validity
oI the priest`s ordination. So while some Wiccan traditions prescribe degrees oI initiation and a
relatively Iormalised approach to ritual, it is nevertheless the case that the magical energy`
released in rituals is a Iunction oI the subjective rather than objective aspects oI practice.
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I will return to the question oI the status oI the Ioundational myths oI Wicca. But brieIly, it is
established in historical scholarship that many traditional practices oI healing and divination
were characteristic oI Iolk practice (Thomas 1971). Regardless oI the truth` oI the genealogy oI
modern Wicca Irom pre-christian paganism (the old religion`), it can be established that much
traditional knowledge was devalued and delegitimised in early modernity through the
proIessionalisation oI medicine and the articulation oI the scientiIic worldview. To this degree,
then, the practices oI healing and selI actualisation characteristic oI Wiccan practice stand
outside, and in many ways in opposition to, the rationalisation oI scientiIic 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 oI scientism or the dominance oI instrumental and calculative Iorms oI rationality. In
other words, the neo-pagan worldview by and large asks questions about the social impact oI
technology and rationalisation, and whether these technologies oI bio-power are incomplete
without an appreciation oI the non-rational aspects oI liIe. This is consistent with a questioning
oI enlightenment narratives and the hegemony oI the meta-narrative oI 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 oI conventional identity Iormation, Wicca
has many oI the same social characteristics as New Age movements, but without the dogmatism
and knee-jerk opposition to rationality characteristic oI many New Age belieI 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 oI Christianity. As a polytheistic system oI belieI,
it seeks to reinstate the Ieminine principle through worship oI the Goddess (who can be named
in many ways), sometimes to the exclusion oI the male divinity. Many Wiccan traditions would
argue that deities are archetypal or representations oI humanity or nature, and that people can
themselves be divine. Wicca, then, combines a rejection oI authoritarianism, dogmatism and
hierarchy in religious practice, with an emphasis on the sacredness oI the earth. Its tension with
Christian rationalities can also be observed in the rejection oI the mind/body split, the
4 Mark Bahnisch
revaluation oI the body, the emphasis on the Ieminine, and the positive value accorded to sex
and sexuality.
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Christianity has long been identiIied 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 oI women
priests in the Anglican communion, and its wash over into the Catholic Church is also
illustrative oI what many have seen as the irredeemable and structural patriarchy oI Christianity
as a social institution. Wicca was Iirst articulated in its modern Iorm by Gerald Gardner (oI
whom more later). In the Gardnerian tradition, the apostolic succession` is transmitted through
initiation by priestesses. Much Gardnerian Wicca relies on notions oI polarity and balance
between male and Iemale principles, an idea that has many aIIinities with the thought oI Carl
Jung. From the 1970s onwards, with the rise oI second wave Ieminisms, there have come into
being a number oI women`s groups and a general rise in Goddess worship understood as a
speciIically Ieminist principle. Adler demonstrates that attitudes to gender issues are less rigid
among Wiccans and neo-Pagans and many oI the most prominent Witches such as Starhawk, Z
Budapest, and more recently Fiona Horne, have been women who have articulated a Ieminist
ethos through their writing and religious practice.
More broadly, scholars such as Irigaray (1974) and Grosz (1994) argue that much oI Western
thought, and in particular, humanistic and social scientiIic knowledge, is deeply implicated in
hierarchical dichotomies between the masculine and Ieminine. II this is so, then the
reinstatement oI the Ieminine as divine, and the disruption oI the mind/body distinction with its
devaluation oI women as irrational and corporeal, then Wicca`s belieI system poses
epistemological challenges to the phallocentralism oI religion and society both. The
identiIication oI the Earth as Goddess Iound in some Wiccan spirituality also adds impetus to
the broader challenge oI Wicca and neo-paganism to rationalities oI modernity. This challenge,
and the anti-authoritarianism explicit in religious practice, is not without its political
implications.
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It is just as well to say at the outset oI our genealogy oI 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 oI the world, create shared social knowledges, and Ioster social
belonging and community. OIten they provided the bases by which a community or social
group understands itselI and deIine the terms oI legitimate debate within that collectivity.
Wicca and neo-paganism have developed their own myth oI origins, and its genealogy is
interesting Ior its own sake, as well as Ior what it reveals about Wicca as a social phenomenon.
It is also oI use Ior the study oI sociological questions about tradition and detraditionalisation
which throw a light onto the study oI new religious movements as a whole.
Social institutions oIten derive legitimacy Irom a myth about their origins. Hobbes and Locke
in the 17t
h
century sought to ground liberal democracy in a story about the nature oI society
beIore government came into being a story with the moral that a social contract to give power
to government was necessary to prevent striIe, disorder and early death! Similarly, religions
oIten place much emphasis on their Ioundation by an individual in history, or their immemorial
origins. The Catholic Church justiIies its own distinctiveness and its claim to be the universal
church by arguing that only its bishops have an unbroken line oI continuous succession with
Sociologv of Religion in Postmodernitv. Wicca, Witches and the neo-pagan Mvth of Foundations 5
Christ. Whether Jesus thought he was ordaining Peter as a Bishop is oI course highly
questionable which is what gives this particular story its status as myth. It serves to provide
legitimacy, and to include and exclude Irom the social boundaries oI the church as institution,
and also Irom salvation or damnation according to the strict dogmatic or theological position.
The Wiccan story oI origins is that the religion oI the common people beIore Christianity
descended Irom neolithic belieIs organised around the worship oI a IructiIying earth goddess.
In country areas, this religion persisted under the disguise oI Christianity, and it resurIaces 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 oI the old religion,
and only isolated elements survived. Gerald Gardner, a Iormer public servant and devotee oI
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 oI Wicca and Iilled in the
gaps where the tradition was lacking or Iragmented, 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 oI Shadows, most oI whose text is published in
Farrar & Farrar`s A Witchs Bible (1996). Some other Wicca or WitchcraIt traditions descend
directly Irom the Iolk religion oI countries such as Romania or Italy. Other Wicca traditions
were articulated aIter the Gardnerian, and the creativity continues today, with Wicca paths
associated with particular mythologies such as the Celtic or Greek, Ieminist 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 oI rituals and their practice oI
Wicca.
I would argue that in many senses, the debate about the truth oI this narrative is irrelevant. But
there are some things that are accepted by scholarship, and others that are more doubtIul.
Certainly, the theses advanced by Margaret Murray in her book Witch-Cult in Western Europe
(1921) have been largely discredited. Much oI the material which Gardner drew upon derives
Irom late 19
t h
century anthropological perspectives, and in many ways it seems that the
scholarship oI a century ago has inIormed modern neo-pagan practice. As Adler (1986) points
out, other aspects oI Wiccan practice derive directly Irom some oI the early texts used the
term esbat` was almost certainly invented by Murray. There are some incontrovertible Iacts
Ior instance the existence oI a Western Occult tradition deriving originally Irom Kabbalistic and
later alchemical practices which inIluenced much oI the practice oI ritual magic in the 19
th
and
20
th
century. Some oI this tradition Iound its way into Wicca through Gardner`s borrowings
Irom Crowley. Similarly, as I argued earlier, there is no doubt that much Iolk magic and
healing knowledge existed in pre-modern Europe, and it is quite possible (but not demonstrable)
that some oI this descends to Wicca, or that there may be witches whose traditions have been
handed down through their Iamilies. Nor can it be gainsaid that Goddess worship was an aspect
oI pre-christian religion.
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Firstly, a non-authoritarian or dogmatic religion will necessarily develop according to diIIerent
social processes than one that claims access to a single truth`. The myth oI origins reIerred to
in the last section has a uniIying role. Adler (1986) argues that many Wiccans are sceptical
about the truth oI the myth but this is beside the point. In some ways, the modern
development oI Wicca and its postmodern growth demonstrate that it is responsive to
characteristics and needs oI postmodernity. It would seem to be much more productive to
theorise Wicca in terms oI the uniIying power oI central narratives and belieIs in holding
together a theologically and ritually diverse body oI people, whose commitment to Wicca is
6 Mark Bahnisch
largely non-institutional. The codiIication or canonisation oI knowledge and ritual by Gardner
and Valiente undermines itselI through the open ethos embodied within that canonised Iorm. So
what we have, really, is a religious movement without hierarchy or dogma. The myth oI origins
provides both legitimacy, and the basis Ior an argument that Wicca can develop truly
postmodern Iorms oI practice.
This then leads to the social signiIicance oI Wicca. Wiccan belieIs and practices have a close
aIIinity with Ieatures oI postmodernity. Postmodern organisational Iorms, and the
spiritualisation and individualisation oI selI actualisation on the one hand, and the desire Ior
local or virtual community on the other, both ring true with broader postmodern trends. The
questioning oI dominant Iorms oI rationality undermines the rationalising processes oI
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 oI Wicca and neo-paganism
relates to the privileging oI local over universal knowledges characteristic oI postmodernity.
The concern with the construction oI identity is only meaningIul in a modern (not in a pre-
modern) world, but the Iorm this takes in Wicca and neo-paganism is only possible once
postmodernity has undermined the certainty and security oI modernity`s liIe projects. The
revaluation oI the Ieminine in the divine is also oI great signiIicance. On one level, this
represents a disruption oI modernity`s Ioundational distinctions oI mind/body and
public/private. On another, it represents broader social moves where the organisation oI
particular aspects oI social liIe is not restricted to a masculine or male logic.
To conclude, then, an analysis oI neo-paganism and Wicca can be very productive both in
terms oI rethinking sociological categories oI secularisation and religious development, and also
in explicating a key aspect oI postmodern social liIe. The category oI secularisation, and Ior
that matter other central theoretical concepts oI the sociology oI religion such as the church/sect
distinction are called into question by the emergence oI religious movements such as Wicca. In
many ways, what a sociological study oI Wicca invites is a rethinking oI the relationship
between religion and postmodernity, iI not with modernity itselI. This paper has demonstrated
that Wiccan practices and belieIs consistently challenge key ideologies oI modernity. It can be
argued then, that Wicca is a quintessentially postmodern religion, and conversely, that the
Ilipside oI postmodernity`s questioning oI rationalisation is a powerIul attempt to re-enchant the
world.
This paper developed out of lecture material given in HUB145 Jirgins, Saints and Sinners.
Explorations in the Sociologv of Religion at QUT. I thank Clive Bean, Gavin Kendall and
Zlatko Skrbis for the opportunitv to develop and deliver this new course. Thanks also to
Rebecca Shipstone and Michael Carden for verv 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 E::v for sending me a copv of his forthcoming paper on Wicca.
Sociologv of Religion in Postmodernitv. Wicca, Witches and the neo-pagan Mvth of Foundations 7
)*(*1*+"*-
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