I’m afraid that I’m going to have to start doing a series of “I read Slate.com so you don’t have to” posts similar to my “I read Salon.com so you don’t have to” posts, for today I have read the most craptastic thing on Slate, so craptastic that I almost was reduced to awe.
Today, Mark Oppenheimer writes about Wiccans. I’m not a Wiccan, but I’m mistaken for one often enough that I feel qualified to discuss the problems with this article at some length.
Before we get started, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page vocabulary-wise.
There are witches–the quasi-mythical women who worship the devil and make your cow’s milk curdle.
There are witches–modern day folks who practice some form of magic.
And there are witches–people who follow Wicca, a young religion based on the idea of either one divinity worshipped in both its male and female aspects or two divine beings, one male and one female.
So, one might say that while all Wiccans are witches, not all witches are Wiccans. You can have monotheistic witches, polytheistic witches, atheistic witches*, as well as Wiccan witches.
Wicca has the same problem that every other religion has, which is that there’s a large contingency of idiots. Wiccans even have a word for these idiots–fluff-bunnies or fluffy-bunnies**. And, in fact, many Wiccans are open about the fact that the fluff-bunny stage is kind of a typical way of coming into Wicca. You see one too many episodes of Charmed or you watch The Craft and the next thing you know you have yourself a nice “Never Again the Burning Times” bumpersticker and you’re walking around with a huge pentagram sneering at Christians.
After a while, hopefully, you grow up some, you read up some, and you come to the happy conclusion that your religion is personally meaningful and so you don’t give a shit if it was made up 50 years ago instead of 5,000.
Anyone who reads even a little about Wicca is very familiar with this whole controversy.
And yet, here comes our idiot friend Oppenheimer reporting like he’s blown the lid off of a big secret scandal. That’s his first mistake. Here’s his second:
Now 50 years old, the earth-centered faith (also known as paganism or witchcraft) has thousands of adherents and many more occasional dabblers in the United States and Europe.
Wicca is not earth-centered. One might say that Wicca is nature-based, as its sacred calendar is based on natural phenomena, like the solstices and equinoxes. But Wiccans worship the Lady and the Lord, not the earth.
Wicca is not the default grouping for any non-Christian white folks. Paganism is. Wicca is a smaller group inside the larger umbrella term of paganism. Pagans, as they’ve reclaimed the word, are mostly white folks who worship gods other than the Christian one. Wiccans worship two specific gods. Witchcraft, as we’ve covered, is just a magical practice, not necessarily associated with any one pagan religion.
Oppenheimer continues to shoot off his mouth:
But Wiccan teachings are for the most part a stew of demonstrably false historical claims. There’s no better time to examine this penchant for dissembling than at winter solstice on Dec. 21, which Wiccans say has been their holiday for thousands of years. For it’s just such unfounded claims to old age and continuous tradition that may keep Wicca from growing to be truly old.
Within Wicca, there are many subsets of Wiccan belief. While it’s true that one can look at Gardner’s teachings (the ones available to non-Gardnerians) and show how he fudged some facts, this is no secret. And most Wiccans, once they’re past the fluff-bunny stage–don’t cling to the veracity of those claims even in the face of historical fact.
But Oppenheimer is doing something patently unfair to Wiccans throughout this article. Since he’s conflated pagans with Wiccans, he can take a demonstrably truthful claim–like that the solstices have been pagan (in the sense of non-Christian European religious) holidays for thousands of years–and use it to impugn Wiccans. Of course, since Wicca itself is only 50 years old, the solstices have not been Wiccan holidays for thousands of years. But most Wiccans wouldn’t claim that in the first place; they’d only claim the truthful statement, that pagans have been celebrating the shortest and the longest days of the year for a long, long time.
I think it’s telling that when Oppenheimer makes such broad claims that he doesn’t actually point to any Wiccans who actually say such things. But let’s move on:
Wicca is not a unified movement; it comprises “good” witches who use spells and charms, feminist worshippers of a monotheistic Goddess, and earth-cultists who propound nature worship. But the many strands overlap. They’re gynocentric; they’re all concerned with nature; they all celebrate eight holidays, or “sabbats,” that include the equinoxes and the solstices. Adherents typically say that those eight holidays were celebrated by ancient Wiccans or pagans, primarily Celtics or Romans, whose traditions the contemporary Wiccans are carrying on. These seasonal festivals, they add, have been co-opted by Christians, who turned Samhain into Halloween and Yule into Christmas.
Again with the conflating of Wiccans and pagans and the sloppy use of Wicca to mean all kinds of paganism, which is clearly not the case. It’s true that Wiccans do align themselves with what they believe are old Celtic beliefs. I don’t know what he’s talking about with the Roman holidays. I’m not sure what he means by “earth-cultists” as someone who worships the earth would pretty much, by definition, not be Wiccan.
And on the nonsense goes, with Oppenheimer declaring what he believes Wiccans to be and to believe and then tearing them to shreds for being so foolish as to believe the things he’s made up about them believing in the first place.
Really, Slate is pretending to be an online magazine, which means that Oppenheimer is posing as a journalist. As such, shouldn’t he be required to, oh, I don’t know, talk to a few actual Wiccans, maybe hang out in their Beliefnet threads for a little bit, do some actual research rather than just creating his strawman so that he can burn it down?
*And, depending how one feels about Pow-wow, even Christian witches.
**Can I just say how awesome I think it’d be if all religions referred to their idiots as “fluff-bunnies”? Would we have the same problems with people taking radical right Christians seriously if other Christians called them “fluff-bunnies”? I don’t think so.