Is Witchcraft Merely a Passing Fancy among Emerging Adults?

Buffy

As a university professor, I have a deep interest in the lives of “emerging adults” and trends occurring among them. Today, one such trend is commitment to Witchcraft.

A popular website, TeenWitch.com, claims that

Witchcraft is the fastest growing belief system in the U.S. and the second largest religion in the U.S. Witchcraft (including Wicca) passed Buddhism in 2005, passed Hinduism in 2007, passed Islam in 2008, and passed Judaism in March of 2009.

More young women than men are attracted to Witchcraft. Often, their initial introduction to the Witchcraft movement is through popular media: TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and feature films like the Harry Potter series. Initial curiosity is often fed by internet searches that put young adults in possession of more information and in contact with established members of the Witchcraft community.

Many emerging adults simply accept the neopagan interests of their peers without seeking inclusion. Others, who investigate a little more fully, lose interest quickly. But a marked number take to Witchcraft quite seriously.

The movement deserves greater attention and more sensitive understanding. It’s tied to a worldview that looks particularly attractive to a group of today’s emerging adults who seek to make sense of their experiences—disappointments, spiritual needs, loneliness, quest for meaning, social dissonance, etc.—on a deep level.

Witchcraft’s associated worldview is supported in various ways by a general culture of relativism and experience-based conviction (over rational inquiry and the assessment of evidence). I believe the Witchcraft movement has real staying power, that it will endure as the stabilizing center for many young people now being initiated into its sensibilities. In other words, it’s more than a passing fancy or form of teenage rebellion or angst.

A good place to begin understanding the movement is with a book by sociologists Helen A. Berger and Douglas Ezzy: Teenage Witches: Magical Youth and the Search for the Self. Berger and Ezzy conducted intensive interviews with self-identified witches in the U.S., Great Britain, and Australia. Their book describes their findings. It includes transcripts of several interviews.

Compared with other literature I’ve read, this book by Berger and Ezzy is most helpful as an introduction to the movement among young people. Their conclusions are tied to specific empirical data. They describe the pathways by which young witches often become committed to Witchcraft. They recount the experiences and practices of young witches, and explain the notions behind them. They relate the Witchcraft movement to broader cultural sensibilities, especially (and most helpfully) in connection with the effects of postmodernism.

(Another book to make this connection is Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion, by neopagan Michael York.)

Berger and Ezzy take care to describe the elements of an individual’s experience that dispose him or her to the blandishments of Witchcraft. They explore the ways family and friends have responded or reacted to the revelation that a son or daughter, friend or neighbor, has become a witch. And they describe how these responses have affected young people who consider themselves witches.

Berger and Ezzy are reluctant to criticize the movement, and they are remiss, I believe, in their conclusion that young adults are not injured by commitment to Witchcraft. They believe that for some young people, Witchcraft is a viable way of making sense of their world and living with greater purpose and satisfaction. They do not critically examine the worldview components of Witchcraft, in the interest of assessing their truth value. They seem themselves to be heavily influenced by relativizing tendencies in Western culture.

But their research and clear exposition have great value, whatever your view of these shortcomings. The authors are, after all, examining the movement as interested sociologists. Value judgments, whether positive or negative, are deliberately kept to a minimum. My impression is that this book could be read by emerging adults who are either fascinated with or already committed to Witchcraft, without causing them to feel misunderstood or prematurely judged.

More important, the book is an excellent entry point for parents, teachers, church leaders, and any others who are confused by the Witchcraft movement and concerned about the involvement of young people they know.

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About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

6 Responses to Is Witchcraft Merely a Passing Fancy among Emerging Adults?

  1. webulite.com says:

    I think that witchcraft and wicca movement has a lot in common with hellenized gnosticism. gnosticism has always been of interest to many, and many early christians were gnostics. I think that once the church split in the 1500s and protestantism was form, it was inevitable that at some point a number of people would be attracted to gnosticism.

    Cheers! webulite.com

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  2. Doug Geivett says:

    Hi, Sparrow. Great question!

    Worldviews are either accurate or inaccurate, true or false. I happen to accept a different worldview than that of witchcraft, one according to which it is dangerous to affiliate with witchcraft. This is partly because witchcraft promotes a distortion of the godhead. It really does matter what a person believes about God.

    One of the authors, Douglas Ezzy, is sympathetic with witchcraft. So it’s not surprising that he is more or less uncritical. His co-author, Helen Berger, is probably a more typical sociologist—leaning towards naturalism (in metaphysics) and relativism (in ethics and epistemology).

    I’m a theist, not a naturalist. I believe there are objective moral truths and that knowledge is valuable and possible, and that knowledge and justified belief depends on having evidence.

    The worldview of witchcraft trivializes belief and knowledge in favor of experience, without considering how belief informs experience, or how knowledge depends on evidence. But belief is inevitable. Denying that belief matters is naive and irrelevant, since our lives are governed by the things we believe. The question then is, what is the most promising and cognitively responsible way to monitor our beliefs? Evidence is all we have to go on.

    But the worldview of witchcraft purports to be disinterested in believing responsibly. According to the authors of the book reviewed here, young people committed to witchcraft are indifferent (at best) or opposed (at worst) to collecting and assessing evidence to sort out what’s true and what it makes sense to believe.

    Berger and Ezzy are okay with this. Maybe they think they have to be okay with it in order to be good sociologists. But this is a mistake. It would be more consistent for them as sociologists to keep their value judgments out of their sociological analysis and reporting, since their values are determined by their respective worldviews. And their worldviews may not be shared by many of their readers.

    Alternatively, if Berger and Ezzy wish to make value judgments, they should clarify their worldview positions, so readers know what grounds their understanding of values. And they should explain the specific sense in which they think witchcraft causes no “harm” to young devotees. (What they can even mean by “harm” will depend on their worldview, which they never state.)

    I really like your question. It leads directly to an important distinction—between description and prescription. The authors cross the line from sociological description into prescription when they declare—without appropriate caveats and clarifying statements—that witchcraft is not harmful.

    Of course, if my worldview is mistaken, witchcraft may not be harmful. According to your worldview, it may not be harmful. So we each have to take a step backward and think about the details of our respective worldviews, and whether our worldviews are adequately grounded in the evidence we have.

    This is a project that members of a pluralistic society like our own should work on together. I should welcome challenges to my worldview, since that’s the best chance I have of finding out whether I’m on the wrong track.

    What are your thoughts about these things?

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  3. cam says:

    Thank you Doug for your kind reply.

    The university setting that I am referring to is Biola University with it’s slogan of “Biblically Centered Education.” What strikes me about the post is the casual and tolerant way you treat your subject. That tone is utterly opposed to anything Biblical.

    Scripture soundly condemns the related areas of witchcraft and demonism. While I agree the subject has a distinctive attraction, I also believe that under the umbrella of “Biblically Centered Education” the Biblical and fundamental view must first be given. Once that’s done students, have a foundation to build on. If that’s not done, then those students, at this stage of their growth, will not have a solid grasp of the subject. They may progress to the point of increased knowledge on the subject, but will never know “what’s really going on.” That only comes from understanding God’s viewpoint.

    I did not mean my approach to sound condescending, though for a Christian to use sound judgment is part of Christian growth and the Christian life. While I don’t claim to possess as much knowledge as you do about witchcraft, I do believe I understand the essential truth of it from Scripture. In a word, evil.

    Finally, an expression of our greatest love for people can be found in our presentation to them of the Truth. Perhaps it’s the good news of the gospel or perhaps it’s expressing other truths of God’s infallible Word. It’s commendable to teach developing adults how to think clearly and logically. But apart from the proper foundation, they’ll accumulate knowledge and perhaps become intelligent, but they’ll never possess wisdom. Wisdom is the principle thing, and it seems to me it should hold a preeminent place in a “Biblically Centered Education”.

    cam

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  4. Doug Geivett says:

    Hi Cam,

    Thanks for your interest and your comment.

    I’m not sure what you mean by my university setting. I teach at Biola University, where all students—regardless of their major—take 30 units of courses in biblical studies from some of the most dedicated Christian scholars in the academy. On the other hand, my university setting includes the entire world of the academy, where students from every worldview orientation are influenced at a time when major life decisions are made.

    Of course, my post here has a very limited purpose. I’m afraid that many Christians react to words like “witchcraft,” “Wicca,” “neopaganism,” and don’t really know what they’re about. And too many are ready to speak in condescending words of judgment, without understanding, and without a love for people. So I urge greater understanding. The book by Berger and Ezzy is a place to start.

    Thanks for recommending Merrill Unger’s book, Biblical Demonology. Unger was a professor of Old Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary, where I attended seminary in the 1980s.

    -Doug

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  5. cam says:

    Good Morning

    Now this is an interesting post on your blog Doug. It is a bit disappointing that God’s Word has no place in your university setting, but in its absence I believe this is, ummmmmmm, an adequate secular piece.

    Scripture deals definitively with witchcraft and the unseen evil spiritual realm and adamantly proclaims, “No! Stay away!”.

    While the university setting is today THE place for socializing, discussing and philosophizing, it’s not likely the your emerging adults will find much of substance in the area of witchcraft. That’s just judging from your brief reading list. Substance for them will only come from what God has to say in the Bible. I think He ought to know. What do you think?

    Just in case anyone is interested in reading something worthwhile regards witches and demonology – they go together you know – here are two offering, both excellent. First the Bible, I may have already mentioned that. And second a book by an old dead white guy, Merrill Unger entitled Biblical Demonology.

    You owe it to your students to give them the Truth, and only through the Truth will they be able to adequately and accurately interpret their lives.

    cam

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  6. sparrow1969 says:

    Greetings Doug,

    I was really interested in this posting, and am looking forward to reading through more of your blog posts.

    I am curious about this sentence:

    “Berger and Ezzy are reluctant to criticize the movement, and they are remiss, I believe, in their conclusion that young adults are not injured by commitment to Witchcraft.”

    Could you please elaborate how young adults are injured by a commitment to Witchcraft? I agree that an objective look at any topic needs to show the good and the bad together, but since they didn’t really give much in the way of criticism, I’d be interested in what you have to say on the matter.

    Interesting blog…thanks!
    Sparrow

    Like

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