The Skeptical Witch
The Choir finished the last notes of the worship service. I sit down in unison with 3000 other people preparing to hear the word of the Lord from Apostle Benjamin. The worship service does not touch me. The words of the Apostle are empty for me. My mind is in turmoil. All these people, people I love, people who love me, fervently believe. Why am I so different?
I spent 10 years as a fundamentalist Christian who constantly questioned the underpinnings of my religion. The church regarded me as someone who read too much, who needed to have more faith and ask fewer questions. The Elders of the church called me into their office many times to find out why I didn't believe in speaking in tongues or why I questioned the literal existence of Hell.
When I finally quit the church there was a sigh of relief from everyone concerned. But where to? Even as skeptical as I was, I always believed in the sacredness of nature and the basic goodness of humanity. Neither of which had endeared me to my church. I had had it with any Christian sect. I explored eastern religions, and although they were easier to accept rationally, they usually taught nature as base, vulgar, or even illusion and exalted the spiritual over the natural. I felt nature and life to be a dance, neither was complete without the other. I searched on. Atheism was not an option; I felt such a strong connection with nature and thus knew life was much more than random evolution. Agnosticism seemed honest but dull. My search led me of all places to Witchcraft (ouch!!). What the hell is a diehard skeptic doing as a Gods-loving, magic-using, Neo-Pagan Witch?
Basic tenets of skeptical Wicca
Skepticism is the doctrine that absolute knowledge is impossible and that inquiry must be a process of questioning in order to acquire approximate or relative certainty. One of the reasons Witchcraft attracted me was the freedom of personal discovery it allowed. My constant questionings of the validity of Wiccan traditions were honored and, to the best of my teacher's ability, answered. This was quite a change from the hostility I encountered in the Christian church when questioning doctrines. The Wiccan world-view can change drastically from one individual to the next. Yet, there are broad areas of concurrence, or the folks involved would not use the label of Wicca.
Witches are people who revere the earth and its natural processes, see each person responsible for her/his own actions, believe in one or more deities, and use magic. Most Wiccans experience their gods directly, weaving them into daily life through myth, ritual and lifestyle. This includes Skeptical Witches like me who may rationalize their beliefs more than some, but have come to appreciate the use of magick and ritual.
The Craft also attracted me because of its insistence on ecological preservation. I had always been an environmentalist. It is difficult to encourage a church to begin active recycling when they believe God will soon make a new Heaven and a new Earth. I thought we should take care of what God had already made and not depend on His coming in the next few years to take care of our wasteful ways. I considered the earth sacred because it was God's handiwork.
Knowledge and Belief
Knowledge is that which is known; the sum of what has been perceived, discovered or reasonably inferred. Belief is mental acceptance of the truth or actuality of something, or absolute certainty in the trustworthiness of another's testimony. There is a vast chasm between the two, which we mentally bridge every day. I believe Bill Clinton is president. I have depended on the testimony of the news media that this is true. I have no personal knowledge of the fact. I know I have three apple trees, two pines, one maple and one willow in my back yard. My knowledge of this fact comes from my personal inspection.
I would estimate that a vast majority of all our learning is belief and a small percentage is knowledge. We base the majority of our paradigm on belief, not on knowledge. The rational Witch may accept an irrational belief if they can find a rational reason to do so. I do not believe Tarot cards can forecast the future. I do believe an intuitive person using tarot cards as a tool can find new options for personal behavior by looking for patterns in a tarot spread. Using a traditionally considered irrational method, a rational person can make reasonable decisions. This view can apply to runes, astrology and most other divination.
Mystery and metaphor
Mystery is something not fully understood or which baffles or eludes the understanding. Many religions claim to have the solutions to the mystery of life, the ultimate reasons behind the creation and function of the universe and our place in it. Wicca is not one of them.
Wicca does not attempt to answer mystery, it celebrates it! Most mysteries have been examined by science; the mechanics of reproduction, the nature of the universe, the origins of humankind. Science has given us the hows, but in the most important ways, the mystery remains.
Science cannot answer the whys of a question. The joy of life, the passion of sex, the birth of a child, the death of a loved one are matters simple in mechanics, but unanswerable if you ask why.
Rational Witches often look to metaphor for dealing with the why of the world. For passion we look to the Horned God of forest and field, we experience his vitality, his sexuality and transcend our own perceptions. In grief we look to Hecate, the Crone, as she leads our loved ones to Summerland.
Each God and Goddess is a reflection of ourselves – in our folly and wisdom, in our strength and weakness. They are the palette our ancestors drew from to paint the mysteries of life. Some of the Old Gods are foreign and incomprehensible to modern Pagans. Others are close friends who have been with us from birth.
Metaphor is the lens we use to bring the Gods and the world into focus. It doesn't answer all of our questions, but it does give an insight to what it is to be human. In many ways, the metaphors we habitually use condition us to see the world in those terms.
If I take the rationalist-scientific view I see a vagina as the passage leading from the opening of the vulva to the cervix of the uterus in female mammals. This view would allow me a normal sex life, but not much more.
What if I said a vagina was a flower glistening wet from a spring rain, or the cauldron of the Goddess, which was the wellspring of life. My metaphor has moved me from the realm of science into the realm of mystery. My lover is my Goddess. She is the source of life. My intellect retains the scientific view, but my soul is nourished by the metaphors I see the world through. Every act of love is an eternal act, lovers become each other's God and Goddess, and just for a moment touch the divine.
Just as some acts become necessary with such metaphors in place, courtesy, respect of a woman's (and man's) sexuality. Other acts become almost impossible, rape, sexual cohesion, intimation or physical violence.
Sexuality is only one of the many activities which can transport us beyond the physical into the mystery of life. Acts of creation in art, music, dance and writing can take on the guise of mystery. All aspects of human relations, watching clouds, or sunsets, or moonrises, attending a birth, being with a loved one at their death, attending a powerful ritual can transcend the normal experience and become mystery.
In the Myth of it all
Myths are stories common among a culture about their world and their lives. Typically these stories, myths, give us a framework around which we can predict our place, both cosmologically and spiritually. Pagans, and skeptical Witches in particular, enjoy a rich and available mythology without any required belief in the actuality of events as portrayed. I use them as a colorful backdrop for celebrations in the changes of the year, or ignore them entirely, at will. As a Christian, I learned the myths of great floods, virgin births, magical gardens and divine healing, ad nauseam. The Church required me to regard these events as history. Very few rational people can for long consider Adam as historical as John Kennedy. Christians must leave a questioning intellect behind and walk in faith. As a Witch you must create your own mythology, using the themes of the past or creating new ones that are relevant, or even understandable, only to you.
On a recent trip to Scotland I traveled to the Callindish standing stones on the Isle of Lewis. With a recently purchased book of Celtic myths I sat amidst the circle, my back resting against the center stone and began to read the myths of my ancestors.
I was vastly disappointed. I found no beauty, no truth in the myths. I came to realize I am a child of the twentieth century. I have never known war, hunger, plague and the myriad of events that shaped our Celtic forbears. Myths that nourished the souls of our ancestors fall on rocky ground in modern Pagans. We often rework the old myths to speak to our age or create entirely new myths to fill our needs.
Myth is useful in the broader whys of a question but not the how's. For the how's in life most pagans will look to science and common sense. How does magic fit in with science and common sense?
There are two types of ritual in Wicca – spellcasting and celebration. Spellcasting is used to change what we perceive as reality. We think of magic as the changing of reality by the application of our will. A skeptical pagan is in a quandary. Most of us have experienced the reality of energy raised within circle. I had always had a reservation about the reality of raised energy.
When I first started participating in ritual I experienced the familiar tingle up the spine and generally moving through the body, I felt I had been told what to expect in circle so my body and mind simply met provided my expectations. I had felt the same tingle in church during praise and worship services so it was easy to rationalize it as an emotional reaction. My attitudes changed during a festival in the mountains of Colorado.
I attended a triple drawing down where three women channel the Goddess in her three aspects, maiden, mother and crone. A friend was holding gate and grounding the celebrants as they came from the ritual. I walked towards her and she stretched out her hands in greeting. I thought she wanted a hug, but as I took her hands I felt a charge of something akin to electricity rushed up my arms and through my body. She assumed I knew she needed help shedding some of the energy she had picked up from the ritual. I was momentarily dazed, but quickly settled myself under a tree and began to ground the energy. I had no preconceived notion of an energy working, so my unconscious mind could not have provided my physical reactions. My conclusion is that by some mechanism not yet understood, energy can be raised and transferred from person to person.
What about the general belief that raised energy can affect physical reality? A working theory for the effectiveness of magic comes from physics. If life is energy and matter in motion, then our directed application of energy will affect the currents of energy and matter toward a particular outcome. This is an article of faith for most Wiccans. There are those who maintain they can visualize this process through some talent most of us lack.
I have already proven to myself that raised energy is a fact, although it took much to convince me. It is a much smaller step to assume using such raised energy will change reality. A step I have not fully taken and may never do so. For such quandaries I use what I call working theories. I cannot prove scientifically a cause and effect for magick, but I enjoy the process. If raised energy does not affect physical reality I have still enjoyed circle and my coven workings. If the magick does work, even better. Magic working is a win/win situation for a rationalist witch. Either way your life is enhanced by your workings.
Use of magic does require faith. While I prefer intellectual proof, in absence of such proof I can only turn to faith. That I am free to revise the tenets of that faith at will, without condemnation from others, gives me the freedom to seek my own path. I revise my rituals around what I perceive to be working. Can I prove such spellcasting works? No, nor do I insist to anyone it does work. From the rituals my coven has created I can see the results. Is it coincidence, wishful thinking, mass delusion? Perhaps, but I enjoy the rituals so much I wouldn't give them up even if I thought it didn't change the everyday world. I know it changes me and that is sufficient. I feel more connected with myself, my coven and the earth. I call this job-interview magick. If I create a ritual to enhance my possibility of getting a new job I might visualize myself at the job interview. I am confident, poised with ready and intelligent answers to questions. When I finally go to the job interview I have been there in ritual and feel the confidence I need to succeed. So from a purely intellectual, rational viewpoint ritual does work.
For a rationalist Witch rituals must transcend the physical actions taken and must involve everyone on a deeply spiritual level. Very little taken directly from books of rituals work for us. Using these books for a reference to write our own covens' rituals work very well. Ritual we design for ourselves has more power because we design it to touch the innermost being of all the participants. This is the key to magic for the skeptical Witch. Magic must touch both our minds and our hearts to be effective.
We also use magic in conjunction with our mythology to allow acknowledgment and celebration of a rich tapestry of personal and seasonal events. These seasonal and personal celebrations are in response to our beliefs about our world and its cycles. As we become attuned to the cycle of the season and come to accept the cycles of our own lives, we create a religion unique to each individual, that fulfills our needs without sacrificing rational or intellectual ideals. There is no intellectual conflict for a rational Witch in celebratory magick.
Rationalist ideas on deity
Isn't the very idea of deity a jump for the rational Witch? I was raised with the thought that deity is a omnipotent, angry, white male sitting on a throne in heaven, with his kind and forgiving son at his right hand. The Christian God(s) are a tough sell to a rationalist. But how about the Pagan Gods? I see the Goddess and God in every storm, in every glade and in every woman and man. Deity, as I use the word, is not a seated figure in the otherworld. It is the essence all, the whole of life and non-life in the never-ending dance which is always changing. There is no need for faith to believe in the dance of life. I taste it in the freshly baked bread loafs of Lammas, I see it in the fiery aspen leaves covering the mountains at Samhain, I feel it in the dancing snowflakes of Yule, I hear it in the birdsong of Beltaine. It surrounds us every day. It is us.
I have never heard of a crisis of faith in Wicca. Christians are caught in this trap often because their beliefs come from outside themselves with no knowledge to buttress them. Our beliefs are a part of us from birth. We discover others feel the way we do and the name of the religion we have always known, but never heard spoken, is Witchcraft. We may observe holidays, or be too busy to observe the Full moons, but the core of what we are never changes. Our connectedness to the Mother and Her Consort are constants in our lives.
The practice of the Craft can be very fulfilling for even the most skeptical of us. Wicca is unique because of the lack of doctrine – we decide which aspects of it we will believe. We can ignore many aspects of Witchcraft as irrelevant to us personally without condemnation of others for differing beliefs. Which is a relief for me. I also honor others' beliefs. One of the first lessons of a rationalist Witch is that we have no belief in transcendent truth. Because we have knowledge of only a small part of our world and substitute belief for the rest of our paradigm, truth is different for each and each must make the difficult decisions about what is true for themselves.
The drums beat with increasing tempo, I am dancing around the Beltaine fire with my Coven. We are all slick with sweat, our bodies twisting, twirling in a mad passionate dance of life, love, worship of the Goddess and God. I see bright eyes reflecting flames, reflecting each persons own divinity, their own power of being. I think of my lost Christian friends, what would they think? What does it matter? I lose myself in the dance. I am home.
Suggested News Resources
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- Today, Rowling expounded upon the Salem Witch Trials and the legacy they left upon the relationship between magical and non-magical people in North America.
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- The White Witch of Los Angeles loves science. Though she performs rituals and readings (tarot, I Ching, astrology) for clients across the city, her background is in biochemistry.
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- Cultural Depictions of Communism and Christianity
- In the entourage of Spartacus there is a skeptical, philosophizing lawyer, Zozimos, who sees very clearly why and how things are going wrong. “I tell you again,” he says at one point to a young zealot, “there is ...
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