Witch-Hunts, Moral Panics, and Modern Pagans

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  March 19, 2013 — 26 Comments

In North America and the UK the “Satanic” moral panics of the 1980s and 1990s are seen as an unfortunate rement of the recent past. A time when fear of secret “occult” and “Satanic” forces led innocent men and women to be accused of, and sometimes imprisoned for, imagined ghastly crimes against children. Sadly, these panics are not a remnant of the past, they continue to flare up across the world, and now that modern Pagan religions are truly global in scope, we are increasingly involved in, or endangered by, these panics.

Wiccan Ipsita Roy Chakraverti with her daughter Deepta, holding a crystal star in their hand

Wiccan Ipsita Roy Chakraverti with her daughter Deepta, holding a crystal star in their hand.

I think it is imperative that we start thinking of ourselves as a global movement. We aren’t just in Europe and the West, modern Pagans are endangered in Syria and Egypt, and the surviving Pagan religions of Russia (and their modern cousins) are increasingly threatened by draconian laws against “extremism.” We are in Africa and India, we are global in scope, we are no longer a handful of visionaries in England, New York, and California. This does not mean we should improperly claim innocent victims of witch-hunts as “ours,” but we should recognize that we can’t ignore the ramifications of ongoing attacks on “witchcraft,” “sorcery,” and the “occult” in nations across this planet. The boundaries are now getting too blurry to pretend it won’t become a major issue for us in the decades to come.

A procession of Pagans at the last Parliament of the World's Religions.

A procession of Pagans at the last Parliament of the World’s Religions.

It is for this reason, among others, that I think Pagan involvement with the global-scale interfaith movement is vital. As these issues intensify, it is imperative that Pagan voices are in a place where we can be heard. Where we can connect with influential men and women in positions to help us. Individuals like Don Frew, Patrick McCollumAndras Corban ArthenPhyllis CurottGus diZerega, or Angie Buchanan are going to be increasingly vital to how we are perceived outside our most populous strongholds. We have to move beyond the romantic ideas about who we are, and were, and work harder on pragmatic advances that will help all Pagans (and our allies). In addition, here in North America, the UK, Australia, and other places where being an out Pagan is (relatively) safer, we need to continue our outreach and dialog with African Traditional Religions, African Diasporic faiths, and other traditions who are experiencing the brunt of ill-informed and discriminatory beliefs about their practices.

Modern Paganism has been more successful than I think many people could have anticipated, and with that success comes new and greater challenges as we move forward. I think we are able to overcome these obstacles, but only if we are ready to take a clear-eyed view of what is happening in the world.

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • Ursyl

    Remnant, dear, remnant.

    Good article. We do need to be aware and speaking up as much as we are able. I’ve seen things open up so much since my early days online, when I made the decision to be open (though not shouting about it) online in ways I wasn’t quite ready to be in regular life. I’ve since been able to open out here in the physical world too, mostly due to having found a supportive community at our local UU congregation.

  • Thanks for referencing South Africa’s recent satanic panic. Our Alliance will be lodging a formal complaint against the MEC Barbara Creecy and the Gauteng Department of Education for hate speech, with the South African Human Rights Commission.
    FYI our press release – http://www.paganrightsalliance.org/mec-creecy-says-occultism-and-satanism-harmful-practices/

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    The UN recently adopted a religious tolerance resolution condemning “stereotyping, negative profiling and stigmatization of people based on their religion” and urging nations “to address and combat such incidents” with effective steps. Though lacking the force of law, and nowhere near as robust as the US First Amendment, it was adopted by a General Assembly consensus and certainly warrants Westerners addressing Global South governments on the basis of now-mutually agreed-upon standards.

    The article I found says this recasts an old, failed effort by the Organization of Islamic Countries to pass resolutions against “defaming” religion, which never had much support. The OIC retooled it as above, with a nod to “religious freedom” in its text, and this enabled the US and the EU to support it. The Obama Admin is slated to hold meetings on how to implement it.
    The OIC’s original motivation (according to the article) was the infamous Mohammed cartoons. Another problem the EU had with it was that it treated the world as religious blocs while most violations of religious freedom are attacks on indiviuals. Looks like someone in OIC was listening.
    Of course we weren’t anywhere near the minds of the people who drafted and passed this, but the same can be said of the First Amendment. We have a new, if relatively flimsy, tool in pursuing your goals, Jason.

  • Kilmrnock

    I personaly would like to get involved in Interfaith groups localy . Is there a clearing house or network to find such groups ? Within the next week i’ll be starting a new job , this new job doesn’t involve any week end or only ocassional week end hours , freeing up most of my week ends .I would even go to the point of helping start an interfaith group if one does not exist . i live in northern Delaware , the local population here of late has become quite diverse. We now have most of the major world faiths here now including, although mostly Wiccan ,a healthy pagan community. If a group exists or is formed i’m sure i could get ASW[Assembly of the Sacred Wheel] involved .This area i would call mostly working middle class , but getting very mixed cosmopolitan in ethnic and religious groups .We have a medium sized city , a college town , a few small towns and extensive suburbs . I believe our population is diverse enough to support such an endevour . Just need to find out the best way to contact people. Any suggestions ?

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    I have said it a great many times that the problem with Paganism in its current form, with regards to interfaith, is that the lack of some form of official spokesperson cripples meaningful dialogue.

    I mean, how many people can seriously claim that the guys you mentioned actually represent their beliefs?

    It’s like the prison chaplain problem in Canada. No matter how well intentioned, a Wiccan is not going to be a suitable chaplain for an Ásatrúar.

    • Deborah Bender

      It is clear whom the Interfaith representatives of the Covenant of the Goddess do and do not represent. The CoG’s National Interfaith representatives are selected by the elected National Board of CoG, and they are people who have done previous interfaith work. The National Interfaith Representatives are authorized to speak for CoG. CoG’s membership includes covens and solitary practitioners of dozens of different witchcraft traditions, including family traditions.

      CoG’s statement of ethics says in part, “Members of Our Religion should ever keep in mind both its underlying unity and the diversity of its manifestations, and should make clear in any communications just whom they are speaking for or about. ” Every person who is given authority to speak in the name of the Covenant of the Goddess is expected to keep this in mind.

      CoG’s interfaith representatives spend a lot of their own money traveling to meetings and conferences where they represent CoG and also try to convey the views of other Pagans when it seems appropriate. In addition, a significant portion of the tithes (dues) paid by members of CoG go to defray the expenses of interfaith work, because the members of the Covenant think interfaith work is worthwhile and important. The CoG budget, including the interfaith portion, is voted on at the annual membership meeting.

      Anyone has three choices: speak up for himself and not expect or allow anybody else to speak for him; join with other like minded people to give support to someone they want to represent them; or sit around and gripe. If you are not doing anything to support interfaith work on behalf of your religion, and you aren’t willing to identify or give help to someone who represents your views, what right do you have to complain about “the lack of some form of official spokesperson”?

      • Deborah Bender

        “I mean, how many people can seriously claim that the guys you mentioned actually represent their beliefs?”–Leoht Sceadusawol

        Don Frew represents the beliefs of members of the Covenant of the Goddess because he is one of CoG’s designated National Interfaith Representatives, chosen to do just that.

        Phyllis Currott had the authority to speak for CoG when she was CoG’s elected First Officer.

        • Lēoht Sceadusawol

          That is one group. What about the very simple fact that the majority of self identified Pagans are solitary or, at the very least, members of small, unaffiliated groups.

          Also, I’m in England. CoG doesn’t apply here. We do have the Pagan Federation, but considering that the majority of Heathens do not identify as Pagan, that leaves them unrepresented.

          • “Also, I’m in England. CoG doesn’t apply here. We do have the Pagan
            Federation, but considering that the majority of Heathens do not
            identify as Pagan, that leaves them unrepresented.” Then represent yourself. It’s not worthwhile or helpful to complain about a group not representing you if you don’t consider yourself a part of it to begin with. That would be like me complaining that a Hindu group didn’t represent me. Well, of course it doesn’t.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            My point is that individuals can’t represent themselves and many Pagan/Heathen groups are blocked from interfaith discussion in the UK.

          • Franklin Evans

            I sympathize 100% with Leoht. My local experience of the last (nearly) 15 years was an exercise in futility. Within the scope of our organization’s chosen geography, I estimated around 5,000 potential constituents, the vast majority of them solitaries (and likely in the broom closet). Our dues-paying membership never exceeded 100. Our primary events, one social and the other quasi-spiritual (Pagan Pride Day), were apparent afterthoughts for them. We had better and more consistent turnout at our Winter Solstice Celebration (based on A Winter Solstice Singing Ritual) ritual performances, despite our explicitly worded charter that we were not a coven, grove or anything remotely similar.
            The only difference for me is that I imagine being welcomed to a local inter-faith organization, but I’d have had no one behind me to represent even in the most general sense. To be clear, the organization is well-nigh dead, and not likely to return.

  • When someone is accused of using magic to harm or kill someone else, that person is not being accused of “Witchcraft”. Pagans should definitely take a stand against the nonchalant use of the words “Witch” and “Witchcraft” as synonyms for harmful magic.

    The indigenous languages of Africa and India all have very extensive magical vocabularies of their own. When we see stories about “Witches” and “Witchcraft” coming from these places, we must immediately be suspicious about just what is really going on, and who is injecting these English terms into the story (and using meanings that have been imposed on these English terms by Christians.)

    • Luminous_Being

      That is the anthropological definition of witchcraft. We claimed rather than reclaimed it.

      • “The Old English word ‘witch’ meant ‘one who casts a spell’. Intrinsically neutral, it could be applied to those using magic helpfully.”
        That is from The Dictionary of English Folklore by Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud. And, besides, anthropologists do not agree on any such “anthropological definition”, and even if they did they are not empowered with the authority to change the meaning of words.

        • Arjil

          but in the Abrahamic faiths witches and similar represent a challenge to the absolute authority and validity of the Church, and so are reviled.

          • Unfortunately, it is not just the Abrahamic faiths. Many modern scholars of historical Witchcraft systematically distort the truth about Witches and end up promulgating a somewhat sanitized and updated version of the old Christian idea of diabolical Witchcraft. Ronald Hutton in particular has developed, and aggressively promotes, what he calls, in his own words, a “global definition of witchcraft”, according to which Witches are, again in his words “inherently evil”. I wonder how many of Huttons adoring fans in Pagandom have taken this into account when the routinely praise and uncritically support Hutton’s “scholarship”.

  • Malaz

    RE: Our speaking about Mr. Morehead/ This article:

    This is why I feel the Pagan community can’t move forward with an interfaith dialogue that includes Christians or Muslims (Let’s not mention the Jewish community, they are not proselytizing anyone) I feel it’s best we concentrate on our Hindu,Buddhist and Shinto cousins. After all, them, plus us…is about 3.5 billion…sounds like a majority to me. 🙂

  • Since becoming very active in the Covenant of the Goddess community, I have seen the amazing results that come from Interfaith dialog. http://covenantinterfaith.blogspot.com/ I myself became involved in some of this work. It was uncomfortable at first but necessary. And, I am convinced that Interfaith and Intrafaith diplomacy – local, national, global – is the key to any future peace.

  • ChristopherBlackwell

    Jason, I fully agree we must think worldwide.

    This is the reason I have taken part in the 30 days advocacy against Witch Hunts in South Africa since it began. It is also reason why I am keeping in touch with the Heathen god stones and god posts vandalism in Russian and in the Ukraine.

    I was taught that everyone is connected, not only fellow Wiccans and Pagans and Heathen and Druids, but literally everyone. That that happens anywhere can spread everywhere under the right conditions.

    I believe that it is my duty to the gods to be proactive and not just wait until something is happening to me. Loss of any human rights endangers all human rights.

  • Malaz

    Jason…Did you know that the Church of Scotland hates Gay Jedi’s??


  • “Pagans should definitely take a stand against the nonchalant use of the words “Witch” and “Witchcraft” as synonyms for harmful magic.”

    I hate to say this, but what do you expect? The modern witchcraft revival took an ancient and very harmful word and applied it as a new label, trying to put a new spin on a word that never before had popular meaning (and the more modern scholarship digs up, the more we learn there simply was no truth to ancient goddess cultures of witches put down by inquisitors). Like it or not, it’s a “reclaimed” label that throughout the history of the word’s use, Witch has only been something newly positive since the 1950’s with Gardner’s public emergence.

    For most culture, the word Witchcraft keeps it’s older and more common meaning… trying to change that is like saying “don we now our gay apparel” is secretly a Christmas carol line about sexuality. It just doesnt work.

    • “but he’s in jail because the judicial system of Gabon operates as though sorcery really exists.”

      Likewise, this presents problems…. are we to fight them for what they do at the same time as fighting for the legitimacy of our practices? How do we go forward saying “well, they DO exist, but your legal system needs changing”?