According to the U.S. Census, the number of individuals professing to be Wiccans rose from the 8,000 reported in 1990 to 134,000 self-proclaimed witches in 2001. A study released in November 2001 by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York found that the number of adults who subscribe to a pagan religion was more than 140,000.
Since the Middle Ages, witchcraft, the "old religion," or Wicca, the "ancient craft of the wise," have been used interchangeably to name the followers of the same nature religion. While the interchangeability of the names remains true today, even those men and women who practice Wicca or witchcraft have difficulty reaching a consensus regarding what it is exactly that they believe and whether or not Wicca can truly be traced back to ancient times or whether it developed as a new natural religion in the early nineteenth century and gained momentum in the mid-twentieth century. As one practitioner of Wicca said, no Wiccan can decide for another what Wicca really is. One definite assertion that may be made about Wicca is that practitioners of the religion are not Satanists. They do not worship the devil or glory in the exaltation of evil. Worship of and agreements with the devil presuppose his existence, and the Wiccans do not believe in the Satan of Christianity.
Oberon Zell (formerly Tim Zell, primate of the neo-paganistic Church of All Worlds, St. Louis, Missouri, and publisher of The Green Egg) does not believe Satanism can be classed as a religion, but is merely a Christian heresy. According to Zell, a true pagan religion is one that originated in nature and is characterized by natural modes of expression, contrasted with those religions that owe their existence to a philosophy taught by one or more great prophets and formulated in various creeds and dogmas. Those who follow Wicca, the craft of the wise, maintain that their faith qualifies as a true pagan religion with its beliefs and practices rooted in the processes of nature.
Generally speaking, Wiccans believe that the sources of good and evil lie within each individual, thus universally agreeing with the eight words of the Wiccan Rede: "If it harm none, do what you will." The craft is therefore concerned with the properties of the human mind, including that little-known, little-used area of the psyche termed "the occult." Wiccans do not believe that there is anything supernatural about the manifestations and phenomena associated with this extrasensory area of the mind. They believe that psychic powers lie dormant in everyone, to a greater or lesser degree, and the disciplines of Wicca are designed to develop these to the fullest.
Wicca is a polarized religion, embodying within its worship the male principle in the figure of the Horned God and the female in that of the goddess. Thus its adherents believe that Wicca presents a truer picture of the nature and workings of the universal creative principle than do those religions that overemphasize either the male or the female values and relegate the other to a subordinate status. Wicca incorporates both cognates of the universal creative principle.
In Witchcraft Here and Now, Sybil Leek defined witchcraft as a religion of a primitive and transcendent nature, "with overtones embodying the female in her most elevated octave" together with the "adoration of creative forces." In her view, such a religion provided "…the total aspect of godliness, in a god which has no name or a thousand different ones, one which has no sex but is both sexes and neutral as well."
Wiccans believe in good and evil as expressions of the same indestructible energy, which, like matter, is neither created nor destroyed but can be changed in form. Because Wiccans do not have a god or devil in the conventional sense of absolute good and absolute evil, they consider these qualities to be positive and negative expression of the same life-energy, neither of which are permanent forms but subject to change as situations and circumstances change.
Wicca conceives of spirit as part of the universal creative principle, existing as a thought form. In keeping with its transcendental nature, Wicca views spirit as the convenient expression for a certain kind of matter, which is thought to contain a dynamic energy of its own. This energy is capable of being transmitted by means of mental activity and can be used to transmute other forms of energy into matter.
Witchcraft/Wicca generally accepts the doctrines of reincarnation and karma but rejects the idea of original sin. Witches believe that the human spirit is at birth like a blank page upon which one's actions and experiences write the details of one's character. This is somewhat qualified by the belief that the ways in which individuals will react to their experiences during a particular incarnation is to a large extent determined by the karmic patterns inherited from past lives. Through a series of incarnations, the spirit seeks to perfect itself by learning to live to an ever-increasing extent in accord with nature's laws. The good is sought in those areas subject to human will. Evil, then, consists of the conscious rejection of the good and the conscious effort to embrace evil. This belief carries with it the idea that humans are free to choose good or evil but can lose this freedom through the constant and prolonged choice of one path or the other. On one side are what some religions would call "saints" and on the other, those who habitually choose evil, with the great majority of men and women falling somewhere in between the two extremes.
At this point, one can see an important difference between Wicca and Satanism. Witches seek the good by willing the good, while those who practice black magick or who follow the "left-hand path" have yielded control of their thoughts and actions to the flesh, that part of human nature motivated solely by the search for satisfaction of instinctual and egotistical demands. That is not to say that witches believe the material aspect of humankind is evil, but, rather, that the striving for evil inherent in the instinctually ordered flesh must be controlled and directed by the will in such a manner that its needs are satisfied, but not at the price of others' wellbeing and existence. Wicca seeks to be a polarized, or balanced, religion in which its adherents recognize that all emotions carried to an excess cause an imbalance.
The popular and enduring confusion of witchcraft and Satanism can be traced to two primary causes: the ignorance of those educators and journalists responsible for dissemination of public information and the practice of evangelical Christian clergy of linking the ancient craft of the wise with devil worship. Oberon Zell once observed that practitioners of the old religion/Wicca/neo-paganism often find themselves in the awkward position of having a public image that was not created by them, but by their persecutors. In Zell's thought, such an injustice would be much as if the Nazis had succeeded in eradicating Judaism to the extent that, generations later, the common opinion of what the Jewish faith was all about was derived solely from the anti-Semitic propaganda of the Third Reich—just as the opinion of what Wicca is all about has been largely derived from the tortured testimonies of those who were put on trial for witchcraft by the Inquisition. Zell's analogy makes the point that today's Wiccans may no longer be tortured or burned alive at the stake, but they still suffer from persecution of character at the hands of unknowing, indifferent, or biased journalists, clergypersons, and educators.
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