Scientology and the Paths Wicca Didn’t Take

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  January 16, 2013 — 20 Comments

There’s been a recent flurry of news about the Church of Scientology, none of it good. A puffed-up press release “advertorial” at The Atlantic backfired disastrously, a critical investigation of the church by an acclaimed investigative journalist is being published tomorrow (which follows a 2011 critical journalistic history), and a Buzzfeed expose into the church’s recent infrastructure growth scheme has them asking if the entire enterprise is self-destructing.

The now-pulled Atlantic Scientology "advertorial."

The now-pulled Atlantic Scientology “advertorial.”

“Scientology leader David Miscavige has been trumpeting his church’s “milestone year,” but the mysterious religion is alienating scores of its most faithful followers with what they call a real estate scam. With anger mounting and defectors fleeing, this may be more than a fleeting crisis; it may be a symptom of an institution in decline.”

What caught my eye particularly in the Buzzfeed investigation was a section on the declining numbers of the church.

And the ranks of the faithful are dropping. In 2008, there were 25,000 self-identifying American Scientologists, down by over a half from 55,000 in 2001, according to the American Religious Identification Survey. (Over the same time period, the number of Wiccans more than doubled from 134,000 to 342,000.) The 2011 British census showed a total of 2,418 Scientologists across England and Wales; about 73 times as many Brits identified themselves as “Jedi.”

The comparison to Wicca, I think, is far more telling than it appears. Why would a faith with tons of money and infrastructure, with a whole host of famous adherents, decline by more than half between 2001 and 2008? Why would Wiccans, who have none of those things, more than double? Minority religions have several different options for growth and survival, and the adherents of those faiths (and their leaders) have to decide which ones suit them best. Some of the success of Wicca comes down to the choices it didn’t make that Scientology did.

Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary leading a Lammas bonfire ritual.

Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary leading a Lammas bonfire ritual.

  • Wicca chose to reject institutional hierarchy: Whether you’re talking about hidebound Gardnerians, or a newly-formed eclectic group, there is no Wiccan “pope,” no central authority that can dictate terms. There are clergy, yes, and respected elders, but they don’t control the lives of their fellow adherents. Anyone is free to leave at any time, and as our own history has shown, Wiccans are free to create a new tradition if the old one doesn’t please them.
  • Wicca doesn’t charge: Early on it was decided that while Wiccans might charge for a class, or to convey knowledge, you could not charge for initiations, or for greater access to its mysteries. A clear separation between, say, charging for a tarot reading, and charging for initiatory training, has endured throughout all forms of Wicca. Anyone who does charge for initiations is quickly repudiated, and usually quits before long.
  • Wicca has deemphasized the need for physical buildings: While there’s a growing debate about it now, throughout most of its history Wicca has deemphasized the need for “churches” and buildings. Most Wiccans gather in homes, or outside in nature. A small-group dynamic was instilled early on, and that has endured (other Pagan religions, like Druidry, have approached this issue in a different manner, but that’s a different story). A real estate scheme like the one described in BuzzFeed would never work because the entire concept would seem alien to our aesthetics. At best, we might collectively build libraries and community centers someday, but it remains to be seen how successful those initiatives will be over the longer term.
  • We don’t hunt our heretics: It’s pretty hard to be heretical in a decentralized, non-hierarchical, faith, be we occasionally have figures who are deeply polarizing, or who are seen as crossing some ethical line. For the most part, barring extreme cases, these figures are all still operating and practicing within the larger Wiccan milieu. There isn’t a Wiccan punishment system aside from getting kicked out of a group, or perhaps an entire tradition. Even if that does happen, that person will still be allowed to go to pan-Wiccan and pan-Pagan events. In short, our heretics largely feel just fine. Most even pride themselves on their infamous status.
  • We don’t recruit, and we don’t really care if famous people are members: Wicca grows organically, through small groups, word of mouth, books, and people reading web sites. We almost have a collective allergic reaction to the thought of proselytizing, and the aggressive marketing techniques of Scientology would give most Wiccans hives. Further, while a famous (or semi-famous) person will express interest in Wicca, we don’t really do much about it. No celebrity goes on PR tours for Wicca, and most find our faith a personal matter they don’t discuss much. Most celebrity moments are happy (or sometimes unhappy) accidents. It’s just not where our priorities are, and we believe that people will end up in Wicca if that’s where they are supposed to be.

In short, we’ve grown by being the anti-Scientology. As a result, we’ve also avoided most of their pitfalls, including the decadence and paranoia that comes from amassing more than a billion dollars in liquid assets. Sometimes Wiccans will bemoan the choices we’ve collectively made over the years, but we’re still growing, and we’re working on gaining allies, not with the rich and powerful, but with other faiths that share our values. So when I look at the Scientology headlines, I’m thankful for all the paths Wicca didn’t take.

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • Lupa

    Ha! Good timing, given I’ve been chewing on pagan fundamentalism over on Therioshamanism today. I really like your delineation of what characterizes not just Wicca, but neopaganism in general. Yes, the lack of central structure can sometimes seem problematic, especially as we try to gain more of a foothold in the mainstream consciousness (mostly to the tune of “we’re not dangerous, we just want to practice our own faith, that’s all!”) But it’s also worked to our advantage by keeping us from going the same destructive path not just of Scientology, but of a number of religions that have fallen prey to power-madness. Personally, I’d love to see how we develop a model of mainstream inclusion that doesn’t rely on centralized consistency.

  • Fantastic comparison! I would suggests that, if we remain true to our founding principles, we can move forward as a faith and build institutions without falling prey to the damage and ego that is ultimately destroying Scientology

  • Just out of curiosity–these differences you cite, are they the result of conscious decisions Wiccans have made, or are they the natural result of Wiccan beliefs?

    • KhalilaRedBird

      My opinion: I think first factor is the personalities of the people attracted to Wicca v. Scientology; second is the conscious decisions and intentions; third is the nature of the Traditions we are carrying on.

  • PhaedraHPS

    Can’t talk Scientology without referencing Isaac’s Advanced Bonewits Cult Danger Evaluation Frame. 🙂 Scientology scores high on the right of the scale, Wicca tends to draw people who are attracted to the low scores on left (not a political reference, merely page/graph direction). Of course, going really far to the left of the scale causes its own set of problems.

  • Open Source wins again!

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    Regardless of the reality of the situation, you have to admit that, just sometimes, it’d be nice to have access to Scientology’s fiscal resources.

    • kenneth

      IF those resources could be separated from the sorts of people it attracts and maintains in power. Unfortunately, those two forces are inseparable, like electric and magnetic fields. What use is a billion dollars if it brings with it a trillion worth of megalomania?

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        Therein lies the major problem of centralisation of power.

  • Tiny niggle. Please don’t talk about Gardnerians as “hidebound” in a way that assumes this is the default. Whilst some may have that attitude it is by no means the norm. Gards in Australia and England largely shake their head and sigh at the nonsense that SOME of their American brethren get up to. Perpetuating a Gardnerian Wicca = narrow-minded, elitist snob stereotype does an awful lot of damage to inter-pagan relations. If we just say Gardnarian without the “hidebound” appellation then people can make up their own minds. That said the rest of the article was quite good and I agree with your summation.

  • kenneth

    Wicca and Scientology actually had a brief point of convergence, in an indirect way, through Aleister Crowley (who inspired Gardner in some ways). Back in the 40s, Hubbard moved in with Jack Parsons, who was Crowley’s OTO boy in California. In the space of a year or so, Hubbard snookered Parsons out of much of his savings and his girlfriend. From an ocean away, Crowley figured Hubbard as a grifter, and chastised Parsons for being an easy mark (which is not really what a man needs to hear when he loses his girlfriend and a quarter-mil in one shot, but I digress).

    At any rate, the brilliance of Wicca is that it’s an open-source system, oath-bound trads notwithstanding. More than a few folks tried to follow Hubbard’s footsteps in their own way, proclaiming themselves “king of all witches” or the holders of the only authentic witchcraft or some such nonsense. They all failed.

    They failed in part because none of them had the perfect fatal mix of megalomania, sociopathy and raw intelligence that Hubbard possessed. Mostly they failed because Wicca, and neopaganism in general resists efforts to monopolize and monetize it. New Age outfits like Scientology, and for that matter, most Abrahamic trads work by conditioning people to believe they’re living in a desert and that the gurus and priests are the only bottled water sellers on the planet. Wicca helps them learn they’ve been standing in a rainstorm the whole time – open your mouth and drink….

    • Veracity

      Kenneth, that last paragraph is bloody brilliant.

  • Draigx

    I’m afraid I couldn’t find Wicca in the ARIS for 2008 and thus am curious about where the 342,000 comes from. That sounds more like the estimate for all contemporary western Pagans in the US. Just curious….

  • NeoWayland

    I really don’t think we should define Wicca or Paganism as the “anti-” anything. Citing Bonewits again, it implies a dualism we can do without.

  • Daniel SnowKestral

    Wicca, of course, is only hierarchal in the sense of Traditional Coven-oriented Wicca as founded (or “discovered”) by Gardner as an oathbound, initiatory Tradition.

  • Deborah Bender

    I wonder whether there have been other religious movements in the last two hundred years that had all five of the organizational features that Jason lists above as being characteristic of Wicca. If we can identify any such movements, we could study their histories for clues about what challenges Wicca may face in the future and how it might develop in response to challenges.

    The movements in question need not resemble Wicca in their beliefs or practices, only in organizational structure and attitudes about money. I’m not a historian of religious movements, but I’ve done some reading about them. Many religious movements only last for a few generations. They flare up and fade away like Spiritualism and Christian Science, destroy themselves with internal conflicts, are reabsorbed into their parent traditions, or are suppressed.

    The fact that no movement resembling Wicca in all five points comes to my mind suggests either that Wicca’s approach is something really new in the modern world, or that a movement that has all five characteristics will be self-limited in its spread and longevity. I would love to know which is true. Or perhaps both will be true, in which the next movement coming down the pike can learn from Wicca’s developmental history.

    • Veracity

      Very interesting comments, Deborah! If anyone figures out another religion that contains these organizational points, I’d be very intrigued to know what they are.