Newspapers and magazines, whether print or electronic, keep a store of “evergreen” content to republish at various intervals, usually seasonal. The thinking being, why rewrite on the same theme over and over again? That article about how you love flowers in the Springtime is never going to go out of style, so long as there are indeed flowers in the Springtime. But sometimes pieces even a few years old start to sound dated, or rely on arguments and “common wisdom” that is no longer valid today. Which brings me to Slate.com reprinting a 2005 article by Mark Oppenheimer about Wicca’s celebration of the Winter Solstice and how the religion is “undermined” by false historical claims.
“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.”
For the most part? Ouch! Now I’m the first to admit that certain strains of contemporary Paganism, including Wicca, have been, shall we say, “creative” with the past, but I’ve got a problem with this sort of article being re-published (and not just because it takes a jab at Wiccans). First off, even in 2005, this piece was years behind the curve of what was actually happening inside Pagan communities in America and around the world. Modern Paganism has been re-evaluating and questioning certain historical claims for decades now. Aidan Kelly was causing a stir nearly ten years before historian Ronald Hutton explored Wiccan historical claims in “Triumph of the Moon”, and Hutton’s book was published ten years ago! Oppenheimer even grudgingly admits in the article’s closing that changes have been going on.
“There’s evidence that many Wiccans may be wising up. Starhawk has backed off her boldest assertions and now concedes that some part of her original historical matrix may not be true. The debatable notion that Hanukkah is also based on solstice celebrations has been floated but has not caught on, even among diehard Goddess worshippers. Both Starhawk and Carol Christ, another prominent Goddess evangelizer, told me they had no reason to believe the Hanukkah theory. Chastened by the attacks on their bad historiography, Wiccans are growing more likely to say that their faith is based on a love of Wiccan practices, rather than on particular historical claims. It’s a heartening development when religious belief isn’t dependent on the latest archaeological findings. Wiccans might no longer have to sacrifice intellectual rigor to get their spiritual sustenance.”
That this historical re-evaluation has been going on for years should have been evident to Oppenheimer, since one of the sources he cites and praises, Charlotte Allen’s 2001 piece for The Atlantic, came to the same conclusion.
“…both Starhawk and Eisler, along with many of their adherents, seem to be moving toward a position that accommodates, without exactly accepting, the new Goddess scholarship, much as they have done with respect to the new research about their movement’s beginnings.”
So why even write about (and continue writing about) a problem that’s in the process of resolving itself? Perhaps because Oppenheimer has an ax to grind? Back in 2006, Oppenheimer published a book entitled “Knocking on Heaven’s Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture” that claimed to look at how 60s counterculture shaped religion in America, but quickly drew some interesting boundaries for the sake of “clarity”.
“The alternative groups we identify with the late 1960s were far smaller than imagined, and some historians, easily infatuated with the new and the sexy, have been led badly astray…there has never been reliable evidence of widespread Satanism or paganism…One might argue that by excluding the preponderance of cults, sects, and communes from this study, we are denying them the status of “religion.” That is correct – but for the purpose of clarity not condescension…religion is commitment to a set of beliefs that requires meaningful sacrifice. A belief that you must tithe, or donate of a portion of your income to your church or faith community…religions require sacrifice and exclude other religions.”
You see, in Oppenheimer’s imaginary, arbitrary, definition of religion, Wicca, and other modern Pagan faiths aren’t “real” religions because we, in his imagination, don’t sacrifice or tithe (or own lots of real-estate). That his assertions about sacrifice within our communities are largely ignorant and untrue don’t seem to matter, just as he ignores the important and significant role modern Pagans did indeed play in shaping culture during the 1960s. But hey, anything to save a little work doing research for your book, right?
Ultimately, what gets me isn’t that Slate.com wants to re-publish a critical article about Wiccan history, but that it wants to re-publish a critical article from someone who has barely skimmed the surface of the topic (with his whopping two citations), who seems to have a chip on his shoulder regarding the subject, and who actively ignored our faiths when he actually did write a book on religion. Surely we can do better than this for evergreen material? Oh, and Mark? For the record there are several hundred thousand modern Pagans in America alone, not “thousands of adherents and many more occasional dabblers in the United States and Europe”. It looks like your article’s assertion is a bit out of date, you might want to contact Slate.com for an update lest you look hypocritical.