I was originally going to write something about John Michael Greer’s article in Witches & Pagans about “Methodist envy” (fucking brilliant) and Paganism, but then it turned into an only tangentially related response to the common assertion that witchcraft is a tool or a craft as opposed to a religion.
The (often somewhat angry) assertion goes like this: Wicca might be a religion, and there are witches out there who might also practice some religion or other, but witchcraft by itself is secular. You can be an atheist, a Christian, a Buddhist, or whatever and still practice witchcraft. JEEZ PEOPLE WHY SO CONFUSED.
This argument is a problem from the scholarly perspective for a couple of reasons. First, it presupposes that we have some kind of universal definition for what constitutes “religion.” Usually, people’s reasoning is that, because witchcraft doesn’t by itself (necessarily) incorporate gods, spirits, or supernatural beings and doesn’t (necessarily) have some kind of moral creed or formalized institution, it’s not religion. Interestingly, this is a definition of religion rooted very strongly in Protestant Christianity. If your definition of religion depends on something looking like Protestantism, then it’s understandable why you would insist that witchcraft is “a craft and not a religion” (although it sometimes looks like Protestantism more than many of us would like to admit).
Second, people who practice witchcraft by and large behave like other religious people. Admittedly, my own approach to the study of religion sways strongly toward ethnography and otherwise considering what people do rather than what they say they do. And contemporary witches of practically any stripe I can think of behave like people we would usually consider to be religious. They dedicate enormous amounts of time to their witchcraft, they form communities of various kinds devoted to witchcraft, they spend money, write books and make websites, build various kinds of hierarchies, engage in ritual practice, and make major life decisions all with witchcraft at the center. That’s not a definitive checklist, merely a list of things off the top of my head that scholars often look for when debating whether or not we can fairly consider something as a religion. Those of us who aren’t stuck in 19th century Europe aren’t necessarily interested in whether or not you think that you’re worshipping anything.
And let me jump the gun and anticipate the, “Yeah, but by that definition football could be a religion” argument: Correct. Which is why increasingly religious studies scholars treat it as such. Along with New Atheism, Southern barbeque, fandoms, and American “civil religion.”
Arguing that witchcraft isn’t a religion—and getting so peeved about it the way people do—only tells us what your position is as an insider. It’s not actually reflective of any kind of inherent truth or objective reality. You don’t think of your witchcraft as religious? Cool. Buddhists in China often don’t think of their Buddhism as “religious” either. Not because it’s not, but because the concept of “religious” is generally quite a bit different once you get beyond our usual Christian (often mistaken for secular) models. And evangelical Christians rarely call themselves evangelicals. The Unitarian Universalists I just finished writing about don’t consider themselves Christian, either. But it would be bad scholarship to simply take the argument that “witchcraft isn’t a religion” at face value and leave it at that. Asserting that witchcraft isn’t religion only tells me what you think religion is. It doesn’t actually tell me much about witchcraft.
This is tied back to the conversation about being “religious” versus “spiritual,” as if those things were really objectively different to the observer. The distinction matters to insiders, and I’ll be sure to note your preference in my field observations, but you’re not spouting any kind of definition that’s universally applicable or even potentially very meaningful to anyone but you and (maybe) your own community.
And of course the reason we’re all so invested in what is and is not religion is because of power, in one direction or another, and social location. If we think religion is about strict morals and judgmental gods and being told what to do, then we’re more likely to prefer words like “spiritual.” Same if we think religion means being part of a formal institution or forking over time and money. If we think religion means having community respect, government recognition, and other kinds of social power, we’re more likely to want to be recognized as real religion and push for seminaries, chaplains, churches, and paid clergy. If we think religion is about gods and the supernatural, we might choose to bill our practices as “secular” or exclusively as “craft.” And our definitions are usually rooted in our own religious upbringings and cultural models, which is why so many of us still look like Christians.
None of this to say that definitions aren’t important or that we shouldn’t draw some boundaries. After all, if anything is potentially religious, then what the hell did I go to grad school for. But we need to accept that our definitions have subjective contexts. Language isn’t some kind of untouchable, inherent other that exists independently of the people using it.
As a side note, Religious studies has ruined my ability to interact with religious people as a religious person. My peers have become my data.