The Mask of Understanding and Concern

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  February 22, 2011 — 69 Comments

Earlier this month I noted the publication of a new book on Witchcraft that was used by a British columnist to toss rhetorical brickbats at modern Pagans. That book, “Wicca and Witchcraft: Understanding the Dangers”, subsequently got mentioned in various mainstream outlets and around the blogosphere. Yesterday, The Catholic Herald published an essay from the author, Elizabeth “Liz” Dodd, concerning her “Teen Witch” years and subsequent return to the Catholic fold. While Dodd says she was “hoping to diffuse” the “the persecution complex among Wiccans” and inform Catholics about the non-Satanic “realities of Wicca”, her narrative so closely follows the modern Pagan-to-Christian conversion story that it could have been written by a missional-minded committee.

“As a teenager, with only a limited amount of say in what I’d have for dinner, for example, the idea of unmitigated supernatural power, coupled with such a self-governed morality, was very appealing […] Finally, inevitably, about three years into my study of witchcraft – like any teenager who has ever played with a Ouija board – I became convinced I had communicated with a “spirit”?whom I had failed to banish. The accompanying sense of dread lasted for weeks. A Catholic schoolfriend wrote out the Hail Mary for me – I’d never heard it before – and suggested I say it when I felt spiritually threatened. I stopped practising witchcraft soon afterwards.”

Unlike old-school conversion narratives, where the Satanic heart of all non-Christian faiths are eventually revealed, often with lurid tales of sacrifices or massive spiritual battles, the new form of narrative portrays Wicca and other Pagan religions as largely benevolent yet flawed and lacking depth. They crumble like dust in the face of “true” Catholicism or Christianity. This newer narrative is found in recent works like “Generation Ex-Christian”, “UnChristian”“Generation Hex”“Wicca’s Charm”, and many, many, more. It is the new mask of understanding and concern that Western Christians have adopted once they realized that demonization was merely isolating them, and that modern Paganism was expanding and entering the mainstream despite their best efforts. Naturally, the tactics of demonization and conversion under various forms of duress persist outside the harsh glare of mainstream Western media attention.

Like all conversion stories of this type, as “nice” as they are to non-Christian faiths they ultimately are forced to construct a straw-man in order to fully discredit their previous choices. For Dodd, that means conveying outright falsehoods, though one can hardly tell if it is through bad source material or triumphalist malice.

“An innate respect for history, if not tradition, led to an uncomfortable awareness that the religion as I knew it had existed for little over 20 years […] the occult witchcraft I was studying was at core misogynistic. Crowley wrote some unpleasant things about women; in the works of Anton LaVey, the self-appointed Satanist and a friend of Crowley’s, I encountered rants about women’s intellectual inferiority.”

Even the most conservative anti-direct-lineage partisan would admit that the origins of Wicca stretched back to at least the late 1930s. As Ronald Hutton, Owen Davies, and other scholars have noted, modern Paganism’s beginnings aren’t  some cut-and-dried “Gardner made it up” or “Gardner stole it from Crowley” anecdote. That instead there were unique events, folk survivals, and cultural shifts that made the emergence (or reemergence) of modern Paganism possible. But such a complex narrative wouldn’t work well when trying to convince your readers of Catholicism’s superiority. As for Anton LaVey (interesting that she felt the need to insert a Satanist into her narrative), he was never “friends” with Aleister Crowley, who died in 1947 before LaVey ever read his works.

Dodd wants it both ways, she wants to be seen as the “real deal” when she talks about her time as a Witch, but her own biography is that of a seeker, a dabbler, who simply rebelled for a time against her childhood faith (later in the article she talks of a post-Pagan period where she was a “vegan Buddhist”). She tries to sound authoritative about Wicca, but has obviously not read deeply, or kept up to date on recent scholarship before penning her Catholic pamphlet. Her emphasis on spiritual danger is also typical of modern anti-Pagan narratives, one that I addressed several years ago when reviewing Catherine Edwards Sanders’ book “Wicca’s Charm”.

“Finally I feel I must address the “dangers” of the spirit world that Sanders brings up again and again in her book. She takes great pains to point out that every Wiccan she has talked to speaks of the dangers of working with the world of spirit if you are untrained or unprepared. She hammers home how our circle-castings and quarter-calls are done to “protect” us from a dangerous world beyond this plane. She doesn’t mention that many of these beliefs are part of the Christian heritage she feels we would cast away if we were “true” Pagans. Many of the ritualistic “protections” we have incorporated were written by Christian men with a Christian sense of fear of the world of spirit. The problems the inexperienced adept encounters when working with magick is the same problem that fervent Christian converts have when they ask a loving God to grant them the destruction of enemies or great material wealth. They experience an ego death when they realize these wishes will never be granted. You can call this the “three-fold law” or “God’s grace,” but the results are quite similar. Either the convert or the adept will grow up, or they will remain delusional and jump to the next spiritual path they feel will grant them their wishes.”

Dodd is wearing the mask of concern, but the fact that she felt the need to write this pamphlet shows her own spiritual immaturity. She notes that she continues to “struggle” with her faith, and seemingly clings to the idea that her faith is more “ecological, feminist, pacifist” than Wicca, for to believe otherwise might irreparably crack her insistence on Catholicism’s superiority. The “best” faiths, if we insist on talking in imaginary hierarchies of belief and tradition, feel no need to write pamphlets calling other faiths into question. Their excellence would shine through without the need of half-truths and omissions that cast opponents in a less favorable light. Having just spent a long weekend surrounded with some of the best individuals and groups my family of faiths have to offer, I can tell you that her failure to find depth or breadth was a personal one.

In the end, her work does us a favor I no longer wish to beg from the dominant monotheisms, the kindness of not calling us Satanic. As I said in my commentary on “Generation Hex”, refraining from calling us Satanic baby-killers is no longer enough. Realizing that the extremist slanders are false is a small first step, not the journey’s end. No doubt some, and perhaps Dodd herself, will consider this work a great leap forward, but I would rather all the masks fell away and we can truly estimate each other on the merits and deficits we truly possess.

Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • Pixie

    This is just one more example of a short-sighted seeker falling back into the fold. Catholicism is a perfect religion for someone like Elizabeth Dodd, a person who would rather fall into the familiar than forge a new understanding of any depth. I'd love to see real transparency so that an intelligent discussion could be had without the veil of secrecy – and that veil works both ways.

  • Pitch313

    As for Catholicism, I have puzzled over the observation that some, perhaps many, good-hearted and thoughtful folks uphold an alliegance to the Church despite their deeply-felt objections to the Church's doctrines and policies and processes.

    As for devaluing Paganism and Wicca because it is a "new" religious movement, well, back when, Christianity was "new," as well. If I were coming from a pro-Christian viewpoint, I would hesitate to undermine all those early Christians' adherence to that religion–and the value of that religion–because the Christian movement was "new."

    "New" religions and spiritualities may possess enduring and profound values and insights and life ways.

    • EricSchwenke

      Yes, but most Christians don't see their religion as ever having been a new religion. As far as they're concerned, they are Judaism reformed , the rightful successors to YHVH's pact with Abraham and the laws of Moses. but renewed/altered by the man they believe to have been the messiah.

    • Cathryn Bauer

      This is certainly a legitimate question. I am a former liberal Catholic and would like to try to shed some light here.

      What a lot of non-Catholics and perhaps even some Catholics do not realize is that this is a very big church that spans a variety of viewpoints. There are numerous niches, orders, and lay groups within it, and people practice this faith with varying levels of personal involvement and commitment. It is in my experience and observation fairly easy to find a niche that does satisfy you and to stay with it. And it is a fact that many Catholics flatly ignore some of the strictures — for example, birth control — and view others with a question mark. For example, quite a few Catholics will say that abortion is a terrible thing, but there might be a reason to have one. This type of matter-of-fact, everyday rebellion is so commonplace that among some Catholic populations, the strictures do not even exist in any real way.

      I believe this is particularly true if you are in a position to see that, in fact, a great deal of social good is done, more or less quietly, under the aegis of some form of Catholicism. I used to attend mass at a Catholic seminary/monastery in Oakland that employed new immigrants without asking questions about their citizenship status. The monastery was a safe place where they could earn a living and also receive a great deal of help with adjustment. The Catholic Workers, St. Vincent de Paul Society, and St. Anthony Foundation are just the best-known of the Catholic agencies that feed people, period, no questions asked. I volunteered at the St. Vincent dining room for a few years. And Catholic Social Services agencies provide a surprising amount of assistance in many areas; I have personal reason to be very grateful for their guidance when I was considerably younger.

      My point here is that if you are embedded in the Church, it's a complex picture. You may be in a situation where you see the good counterbalancing the utterly wrong and awful and decide you will be there supporting it through a dark time. That choice wasn't possible for me, but I do understand how someone else could come to it.

      Hope this helps.