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Friday, March 12, 2004

4,127 Words

I'm now up to 4,127 words towards my 5,000 Project, which has taken a title change since my meeting with Mike Cunningham last week.

There is a section regarding Robert Crawford which needs to be rewritten, and the end isn't the end, it's merely where I've got to. There are also no footnotes simply because Blogger doesn't recognize them.

The Historian’s Approach to the study of a New Religious Movement,
with Emphasis Upon Wicca.

The study of Wicca, as a New Religious Movement, brings to the fore many unique challenges to the historian. This essay has been undertaken to reflect upon the approaches to such a study, and as a rationale exploring the problems for the historian in researching Wicca; with reference to the broader context of studying religions and, in particular, New Religions Movements. Though issues concerning sources will be examined generically, this will be extended further in a dissertation and therefore a critical literature review, specific to Wicca, has not been included.

It would appear that no scholar has previously formulated a methodology for, nor even debated approaches to, the study of Wicca. This fact is rendered unremarkable once applied to the wider context of studying religion. In 1959, Edwin R Goodenaugh, during his speech at the inaugural meeting of the American Society for the Study of Religion, stated that ‘we would do well to ask small questions until we have established a methodology we could all approve and use’. However, there is still no consensus in the academic world concerning the study of religion as a whole. Ursula King, in 1995, in her essay, Historical and Phenomenological Approaches, was still able to write,

‘The search for clearer concepts, definitions, and methods is still going on.’

It is against this wider context that a specific methodology for the study of Wiccan history will be discussed.

One difficulty inherent in conducting a scholarly study of Wicca is that it crosses the academic spectrum, therefore the researcher must understand various disciplines. It is a subject which, for those being studied, impacts upon every aspect of their lives. Wiccans view the world itself in a certain way, according to a personal understanding of their religion. This will have implications sociologically, psychologically and politically; it will inform not only how they live their lives, but also how they approach their employment or studies. Also, in Britain, witchcraft (and, by association, Wicca) was illegal until 1951 and has been subject to negative social pressures since, therefore a knowledge about law, criminology and the social effects of decriminalization could arguably be useful.

It should be noted that this interdisciplinary consideration is a difficulty faced in the study of any religion . King quoted Waardenburg, from his Classical Approaches to the Study of Religion, as writing that ‘the study of religion is less one particular discipline than a field of studies with a strongly interdisciplinary character’. Waardenburg further warned that methodology varies according to discipline and therefore he doubted that any single theory could account for the multiplicity of approaches. In contemplating this in the context of a broader scope of religious research, King concluded that,

‘… an exaggerated insistence on more rigorous methodological requirements can result in an unproductive intellectual aridity and a lack of creative originality, if not to say insight, in interpreting religious phenomena.’

The question therefore must be raised whether a standardized methodology can be theoretically developed for a historian of Wicca, as the historian’s perspective alone may be too narrowly focussed without the insight provided by other disciplines. To concentrate solely within one academic discipline might arguably produce a snapshot perspective akin to judging the beliefs and practices of all Wiccans based on those of a single practitioner.

This problem, generic to the study of all religions, has already been recognized by those researching Wicca and witchcraft. GL Simons, in his preface to The Witchcraft World (1974), stated that previous books about witchcraft had had a narrow outlook, as their writers wrote within their own discipline, while ‘various disciplines… indicate their relevance to an adequate study of witchcraft.’ Social historian, Ronald Hutton, expressed the same sentiments twenty-five years later, when he wrote:

‘(Witchcraft does not fit into) a religious model which scholars trained in traditional history, theology, sociology, and anthropology find easy to understand; which is why, although pagan witchcraft has had a prominent public profile in Britain for half a century, it has been much less studied than other religious movements which have appeared or arrived more recently.’

This challenge results in a situation where it is difficult to find texts of a suitable standard upon which to base one’s own research, and where there are few academics who could critically review such a work afterwards.

There is a consideration for those researching a new religious movement, like Wicca, in that the scholar needs to be assured that their own academic credibility will not be harmed by this study. There are questions to ask of themselves, their peers and those with a vested interest in their reputation, ie their employers or publishers. Is this movement a ‘real’ religion deserving of scrutiny? Can it be studied objectively and is there access to enough, quality information about it? Academics may bring their own non-religious criteria into the research, for example, only affording a movement the status of being a ‘real’ religion if it has been academically studied before.

There appear to be no texts, focussing solely upon Wicca, written by those who view the religion as simply another spiritual path. This is the view taken in overviews of New Religious Movements, which, while including Wicca, do so as only one of hundreds of religions being explored, and appear confused as to its placement. For example, Eileen Barker affords only seven complete pages, and four assorted paragraphs, concerning Wicca, scattered throughout her work; but mentions Wicca by name only once, instead assuming that all witches are Wiccan, and that related paths include Shamanism and Satanism . David Barrett similarly dedicates only five full pages, and six paragraphs, to Wicca, but indexes Druidry and the Pagan Federation under the heading ‘Wicca’.

The academics who are willing to undertake a scholarly study focussing solely on Wicca tend to be Pagans, if not Wiccans, themselves. Prof Ronald Hutton (University of Bristol), Dr Vivianne Crowley (King’s College, London), Dr Jo Pearson (Cardiff University) and Dr Owen Davies (University of Hertfordshire) are all Pagans and all have produced studies of Wicca, Paganism and/or witchcraft. Similiarly, those writing on the subject in a non-academic capacity are generally practicing Pagans, with the exception of those writing from the perspective of a religious doctrine which condemns witchcraft. This creates a natural ‘for or against’ polarity within the sources themselves, whose authors are either advocates or critics of the religion. Therefore, the current debate amongst theologists, about whether a religion is better researched by those within or without it, is relevant to the study of Wicca.

This situation also poses a challenge for the historian in that there are little or no secondary sources about Wicca from an ‘outsider’ perspective. This may be compared to the studies done on the Baha’i religion which, though numerous, have almost all been written by Baha’i scholars. This could lead to the assumption, by those outside of the religion, that its scholars are adherring to subjective policy or tenets from within it, or, in some cases, might be ‘brainwashed’ and therefore unable to effectively enquire about issues concerning their own religious system.

The study of a religion for the historian is arguably more difficult than for those of other disciplines. The historian is not concerned with matters of theology or philosophy, but simply in how that religion came to be and its evolution to the state of that religion today. This point was made by King, about the theory and study of religion,

‘The historical… approach (is)… generally understood to be non-normative, that is to say, to describe and examine facts, whether historically or systematically, without judging them from a particular theological or philosophical standpoint.’

In short, it may be neither possible or desirable to be objective in the study of religion, yet this is precisely the expectation placed upon the historian; though the conclusions arising from these facts may be developed from a particular perspective, for example Marxism or Feminism. Subjectivity would also be a factor in the historian’s decision regarding which topic to address and which facts may be selected for inclusion.

However, as Robert Crawford warned, in What is Religion?, historians can easily miss the significance of any writing on the subject of the religion under scrutiny, as such writings are the subjective responses of believers. Historians tend to dismiss this subjectivity, seeing the work as part of ‘a progressive understanding by humanity’, rather than the understanding of one individual or sect; which is a standpoint which led Ursula King to ponder if objectivity misses the value of the facts. Both Jean Holm, in The Study of Religions, and Crawford suggest that a religion is best studied either by a practitioner of it or by extensive consultation with a wide selection of practitioners. Crawford warned that, for the non-believers, ‘judgment of value often occur’, which could lead to the academic missing the subjective reactions of the same source on believers. Holm wrote,

‘If we want to understand a religion we have to ask what a particular belief or practice, story or event, means to a believer, not what it means to us, and what better way is there to supplement our study of literature than by getting to know adherents of the religion?’

Clive Erricker was emphatic on the point that ‘the study of religion cannot be a purely objective enquiry but must take account of the researcher’s involvement in the subject itself.’

If, as would appear to be the case, the historian would benefit from a subjective understanding of the beliefs and practices of Wicca, in order to research its history, then should this subjectivity be confined to a single Tradition within Wicca? Just as questions might be asked about the perspective of a Protestant commenting upon the history of Catholicism, then similarly an Alexandrian debating Gardnerianism might lack the required insight, despite the shared roots of the two Traditions. However, it might be considered that, just as Protestants know something of Catholicism, then Alexandrians have an empathic understanding of the tenets of Gardnerianism.

Vivianne Crowley identified five major Wiccan Traditions: Gardnerian (based on the teachings of Gerald Gardner); Alexandrian (based on the teachings of Alexander and Maxine Sanders); hereditary covens (Pagan traditions passed down through generations of a particular family); Traditional Witchcraft (based on the teachings of Robert Cochrane); and Dianic Wicca (feminist and singular amongst the British Traditions in that it originated in America). Arguably, if the requirement for better academic enquiry is for the historian to be Wiccan, then the same arguments would require the historian to confine their enquiry to sources within their own Tradition and conclusions based only upon that Tradition.

The greatest challenge to that restriction, at this point in time, would lie in the sources available; and would exclude utterly the other influences upon the sources and practitioners of the Tradition, throughout its growth, by other practicing Wiccans. Each Tradition has not grown in isolation to the others. They each have shared roots (though this is debated by the hereditary covens and adherents of Traditional Witchcraft), which are, at the earliest, only sixty years old. Therefore the respective schisms between these Traditions must be relatively recent and between people from a similar cultural background, and so would not generate an insurmountable lack of empathy. Furthermore, the shared common ground is greater than the differences once these schisms are scrutinized, for example, between Alexandrian and Gardnerian Wicca, as Crowley commented upon,

‘The two traditions use more or less the same ritual material and Alexandrian Wicca can be seen as a Gardnerian offshoot. The differences are more in the ritual style and outlook than anything else. Loosely speaking, the Gardnerians could be described as more ‘Low Church’ and the Alexandrians more ‘High Church’ and Alexandrian witches tend to be more interested in ritual magic than in folk Paganism.’

Nevertheless, Crowley felt it necessary to state that her own perspective was ‘a unification of the Gardnerian and Alexandrian traditions’, and that her work was confined to enquiries within these traditions.

Contrary to these considerations, Tanya Luhrmann, whilst researching Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft, explicitly stated that she consciously chose to ‘view phenomena as an academic and not as a witch’; though, as has already been shown, religious scholars have argued that that would be an impossible position to take. This is a factor which Wiccan High Priest and author, Charles Arnold, suggested is of lesser importance in the research of Wicca,

‘Such a position may be nearly impossible in religions where there are many generations of accrued culture and history into which the researcher is born. It must be noted that such a depth of culture is lacking in Wicca and the experience of acculturation is far shallower as well as being an adult conscious absorption in Wiccans.’

It may be concluded that, while it is not essential, it may be beneficial to the academic study of Wicca, to have an understanding of a Wiccan Tradition, through oneself being Wiccan or otherwise sympathetic to the values and spiritual/relgious beliefs of Wicca. However, it is not necessary for an adherent of one Tradition to be considered without subjective insight into the beliefs and practices of another Wiccan Tradition, at this stage in the evolution of the religion as a whole.

Holm highlighted the fact that individual practitioners of a certain religion may not be representative of the whole, and also that how a religion is perceived may differ greatly in respect of the country and culture within which it is practiced. She used the example that Christianity may appear to be the same on paper, but is generally approached in very different ways in the West Indies and Britain; while also making the point that cross-cultural material and legends might mean different things to different Traditions, for example, how the Torah is treated by Judaism and Christianity respectively.

King raised a similar point in regard to the phenomenological approach to studying religion, which she stated had identical challenges to that of the historical approach,

‘The methodological presuppositions of phenomenology imply several philosophical assumptions regarding the essence of religion and the nature of religious experience, too easily assumed to be the same in all people and places… No phenomenologist can ever deal with all phenomena and the particular ones chosen for investigation are often dealt with in isolation from the wider context necessary for their explanation.’

Phenomenology adopts the participant-observer approach to the study of a religion, in an attempt to create a ‘bridge of understanding’ between the objective researcher, who participates in most aspects of the particular religious practice, and the subjective believers. This approach to primary sources is similar to the historian’s in all but the time frame. While a phenomenologist might visit a modern temple in order to gain an insight into the mental, emotional and spiritual state of its clergy and practitioners; an historian is generally reliant on archived artefacts and writings, from a past temple, to gain insight into the same, as its clergy and practitioners may be long gone. Therefore, an important point might be made that if a phenomenologist approach, which is so similar to an historian’s approach, cannot be objective, can any? It might not be possible to develop a methodology which bypasses the limitations of the historical/phenomenological approach.

Dr George Chryssides challenged the view that such subjectivity is necessary at all, as it is not the purpose of the scholar to ‘adjudicate on questions of truth’ but ‘ascertain what (the) beliefs and practices actually (are)’. However, he was concerned with understanding the phenomena of a particular religion, rather than its historiography, though, as King noted, the two approaches face similar challenges. Chryssides criticized the existing approaches to studying new religious movements, which he identified as: i) the ‘Two Columns Approach’, which compares the doctrines of the new religion with those of an established religion, in order to prove the superiority of the latter; ii) the ‘Odd Points Approach’, which presents an assortment of tenets, beliefs or practices, without attempting to ascertain value or to connect them together, as if they provided a serious account or encapsulated the essence of the religion; iii) the ‘Lop-sided Approach’, which elevated sudden aspects of the religion, whilst ignoring others; and iv) the ‘Ex-member Approach’, which assumes ‘that their ex-members are the best custodians of knowledge regarding’ the religion in question, regardless of the length of time that they spent within it, or how great was their access to estorical information. Chryssides concluded his article by arguing that the challenges inherent in adopting the phenomenological approach, to studying new religious movements, are no different to those inherent in studying established religious movements.

Within the context of the present study, it may be debatable whether the Wicca of Britain, the United States of America, Canada and Australia may be considered the same. Though sharing common roots, each country has evolved its own hierarchy of Wiccan writers and ‘celebrities’, which would inform the national Wiccan practices. How comparable the Wicca of differing countries may be is subject to further research; though it is anticipated that these issues would be similar to those already discussed within the context of the differences between Traditions, due to the relative recent history of the disapora, and the fact that each country’s Wicca is based upon the same primary sources. Therefore, in regard to ritual and belief, the Wicca of different countries should be expected to correspond as well as, say, the Wicca of different covens within the same Tradition, with any major differences explained simply as the influence of the personalities involved on a local level.

However, in the broader context of culture, the concerns of the practitioners may vary greatly in order to reflect the wider concerns of the population within their own country. An example would be that issues of secrecy may feature highly in the life-styles of those Wiccans practicing in countries subject to Sharia Law, whilst being of lesser consideration to British Wiccans practicing in a country where legislation has protected their religious rights. It should also be noted that Wicca has grown (and may have been conceived) within the age of mass communication. Literature crosses borders easily, as do practitioners and speakers. With the advent of the internet, mailing groups and chatrooms ensure that Wiccan ideologies are debated globally, with adherents influencing each other, regardless of national, or even Traditional, concerns. Without an international census of Wiccan concerns, it is impossible to judge how differently practitioners approach their belief systems and integrate them into their lives according to their national context.

Beyond questions of nationality, or adherence to a particular Order or Tradition, there is also the individual’s level of participation, ie the difference between the fanatic and those who simply consider themselves a practitioner of that religion. Dr Chryssides provided the analogy of a car’s driver and a mechanic examining the car. The driver knows how to drive it and applies the mental energy simply to do so, but is ignorant about the workings of the engine or how this car is mechanically operationing; however, the mechanic knows all of these things. Adherents of new religious movements have generally converted to the movement, rather than being raised within it, simply because of the fact of its newness; therefore they are usually ‘mechanics’ rather than ‘drivers’.

Another concern raised by Holm is that subtle changes can happen within religions, which might not be obvious to the outsider. An example within Wicca concerns the initiation ritual, as described by Arnold,

‘There are… seemingly small but, in fact, glaring differences between American and British Gardnerian Wicca. These changes came out of a fear, real or imagined, that there was a serious danger of sexual impropriety via initiatory practices in the US. As there was no such fear in Britain, such changes in the initiation were never made.’

This fact would not be obvious based on the literature on Wicca. Holm’s concern could also constitute an obstacle for academics treating the works of Gerald Gardner as the best source for all Wiccan beliefs, on the sole basis that these books were the first written, without consulting post-Gardnerian texts to ensure that points have neither been altered or updated.

An historian embarking upon a study of British Wicca will be presented with a wealth of primary sources and very few secondary sources of an academic standard. There is a sizable bibliography of studies undertaken in America, where scholars have researched and debated the subject since the early 1970s. However, until it can be asscertained what differences are engendered by national identity, American studies cannot be presumed to apply to the Wicca found elsewhere. Therefore, the first consideration in the source selection depends upon the nation under scrutiny.

A non-Wiccan studying Wicca must first understand the different Traditions and the major writers within those Traditions, before making their selection; which is a daunting prospect given the sheer volume of literature available on the subject. On the other hand a Wiccan researching Wicca may compromise impartiality in the source selection process. This may manifest in three ways:

Firstly, the exclusion of any sources which undermine the credibility of Wicca or its practitioners. For example, Simons raises some interesting points about methodology; however, the tone of his writing is antagonistic towards Wiccans throughout, overtly stating his contemptuous bias in his introduction and concluding his work with the statement that modern witches are ‘primitive’. A Wiccan attempting to create an intellectual piece of research may opt to exclude a source which blatantly questions this intellect, unless it is as a source upon which to base a critique of Simons’s conclusions.

Secondly, but interlinked with the first point, the exclusion of any sources which undermine the credibility of all the other sources and therefore the research itself. For example, Laurie Cabot provided an insight into the psychology and practice of Wicca, which might render the debate over the origins of the religion irrelevant. However, she did this in a book entitled Love Magic: The Way to Love Through Rituals, Spells and the Magical Life. This is obviously not an academic text, it is written for and marketed towards the young or vulnerable in society, and the very title would probably not recommend the source to non-Wiccan academics other than as primary evidence. From a Wiccan perspective, there is an issue of personal credibility, as the author is well-known within the community, wherein she is generally not welcomed as a representative source; also, there is a large school of thought which would deem ‘love magic’ as contrary to Wiccan practice. As with Simons, Cabot could be considered as a basis for critique and discussion, but otherwise dismissed. Nevertheless, its exclusion would deprive a research into Wiccan origins of an alternative point of view.

Thirdly, as already discussed, Wicca is a generic term encapsulating many orders and traditions. While these traditions could be categorized into Gardnerian, Alexandrian, Traditional, Hereditary, Dianic and Other, within even these groupings, there are hundreds of greater and lesser traditions reflecting different beliefs. A direct analogy would be Christianity as a generic term encapsulating Catholicism, Protestantism, Eastern Orthodoxy and others. While the challenges inherent in research, for example, into Lutherian traditions conducted by a Catholic, might be understood, precisely the same challenges affect, for example, an adherent of Traditional Witchcraft studying Gardnerian Wicca. Further complicating this issue is the fact that animosity has existed in the past between some of the older traditions, and, in some cases, still does.

Wicca is a new religion, particularly in comparison with religions such as Judaism, Christianity or Islam, and the sources are written in modern European languages. However, it may be difficult for modern readers to understand empathically the impact of literature, from the early days of Wiccan writing, on their contemporary readership. For example, Philip Heselton, in Wiccan Roots described the problem of summarizing a philosophy, which, he argued, informed Gardner in the revival of Wicca.

‘… popular awareness of esoteric matters has changed markedly in the 60 years or more since most of the pamphlets were written. Much of what one might call the esoteric teachings of the Order are now so much part of general thinking, certainly among the pagan and New Age communities of which I am familiar, that one finds it difficult to formulate in modern language what is being said let alone realise the impact which such teachings had on a variety of interested individuals.’

This could also serve as an example of how an important theological point, which may have influenced the course of Wicca’s development, might be missed as the objective historian concentrates on fact alone.

The difficulty of imparting meaning is better illustrated by the presence of the secrecy oath in Wiccan initiations.

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