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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
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Fall 2001, Vol. 28 No. 2

Hecate Does Harvard: Notes on Academic Criticism of Wiccan Practice  

P. Aaron Potter

While working on a project on the historical reception of new religious movements, I had occasion to delve into the abundant scholarship recently produced on the subject of modern witchcraft. I was surprised to discover that, while the rationales had certainly changed, there were significant similarities in the rhetorical tenor between early-modern screeds against witchcraft and the writings of modern academics on the same subject. I was particularly struck by the severe disjuncture between the way in which contemporary witchcraft practitioners characterized themselves and the way they were characterized, or mischaracterized, by the scholars scrutinizing them. In case after case, academic critics took advantage of the ambiguity of these witches’ self-descriptions and credos in order to impose false categorizations and seemingly willful misinterpretations, facilitating a series of straw-man attacks on their doctrines and culture.

These modern self-identified witches (or "Wiccans") are now the object of a curious modern "witch-hunt." I say curious because while it might be expected that the customarily liberal scions of academia would be the ones leaping to the defense of an embattled minority, it is precisely these academics who are the most visible critics of modern Wiccan practitioners. The intersections of academia and religion have always been fraught with peril, but perhaps most crucially so when we are discussing a group which is already so marginalized as are Wiccans and Neo-Pagans.

That the members of a fringe religion such as Wicca should be largely ignored might be understandable — that they should be vilified is not. I became intrigued by the unusual vehemence of these attacks, and curious as to what there was about modern witchcraft which inspired a resentment so severe as to cause otherwise temperate and careful scholars to discard their objectivity in their ardor to destroy this pernicious influence. This essay arose out of my efforts to understand both the basis of this antipathy, and the ways in which the Wiccan religion relates to and conflicts with the goals of academia. It is intended as both a corrective to the heretofore largely one-sided reception of Wicca and Wiccans by academics and educators, and as a spur to more even-handed consideration of the role of new religious movements in the lives of our students, our colleagues, the educational enterprise, and society at large.

[Fall 2001 Issue Contents]