Wiccans: A Case Study in Faith and Historicity?

You might have seen the recent Gap commercial that throws just about every religious winter holiday into the mix.

If you haven't seen it, here it is:

In addition to Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa you might have heard a "Go Solstice!" in there as well. That's a nod to Wicca and their celebration of the winter solstice which usually occurs on December 21 or 22 (it's the 21st this year).

One of the claims Wiccans make to demonstrate their priority over the Christian's Christmas is the fact that Christmas isn't really Christ's birthday. Rather, the early church linked its celebration of Christmas with the pre-existing pagan (Roman) solstice celebrations. Consequently, Wiccans claim that "Christmas" is really their holiday. Christians stole it.

Mark Oppenheimer has an interesting article up over at Slate about how Wiccans, who have a point about Christmas, have struggled to legitimize some of their other claims of "deep history." From Oppenheimer's article:

The rare Wiccan belief that pans out is that Christmas is an adaptation of a solstice celebration. We have no way of knowing when Jesus was born. Scholars generally agree that by the late fourth century his birthday was figured for Dec. 25, because that was already the day of the Roman feast of Sol Invictus (the "undefeatable sun"), a solstice holiday, as well as the time of Saturnalia, the festival for Saturn.

But in reaching for a usable past, Wiccans trumpet numerous other historical claims that are entirely without merit. The central claim that Wicca is descended from pre-Christian cultures and that it was driven underground by violent Christians was popularized by the writer Starhawk, whose 1979 book The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess is a foundational text for contemporary Wiccans. Starhawk based her teachings on the work of, among others, Marija Gimbutas, a UCLA anthropologist who in the 1970s and 1980s argued that in pre-Christian times there existed a unified, female-centered, Indo-European society that worshipped a Goddess.

Recent scholars, however, have shown that there was no prehistoric Goddess-centered matriarchy. They've also concluded that the Celts probably did not celebrate eight seasonal sabbats, and, alas, that contemporary Wicca was invented in the 1950s by Gerald Gardner, an English civil servant with a deep interest in the 19th-century occult.
The part of Oppenheimer's article that really intrigued me was his analysis of faith and historicity. Specifically, by making claims that can be fact-checked the Wiccan faith opens itself up to a historical debunking that undermines the faith experience of believers. Here's Oppenheimer's analysis:
And therein lies the problem for Wiccans: Religions tend to succeed to the extent that they are not subject to tests of proof. They are based on beliefs in invisible deities and on mystical experiences that can't be explained by one person to another but must be experienced for oneself. So, the more obscured by time or erosion a religion's possible proofs are, the more freely the religion can succeed as a matter of faith. Mormonism could never flourish so long as Joseph Smith could be interrogated, face to face, about his visions. He needed to become a mythic—that is to say, long dead—figure. Jews should pray that we never find the Ark of the Covenant; the truth of a religious system should not be subjected to carbon-dating the tablets.

So long as Wiccans are hung up on whether Christmas is derived from old solstice rites (it is) or whether Christendom murdered 9 million alleged witches from the 14th to the 18th centuries (not even close), the religion will seem a little absurd. It's one thing to have faith in things unseen; that's human. It's a whole other thing to have faith in an easily disproved historical conceit.
For skeptics of religion (think Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins) there would be little difference between the historical claims of Christians versus the historical claims of Wiccans. That is, just because the historical claims of Christianity can't be verified shouldn't make them any more true or any less outlandish when compared to Wiccans.

The relationship between historicity and faith is a snarly one. And theologians are all over the place on this issue. Consider a recent discussion on Ben Myer's blog about Richard Swinburne's application of Bayesian probability to the resurrection. I'm no theologian, but it seems like a great deal of the debate on Ben's blog boils down to how one should (or if they should) approach the resurrection as a historical and empirical event. One move is to remove the resurrection from the coils of historicity. This extracts the resurrection from conversations about "proof" or "disproof." The other move is to apply the tools of empirical and historical evidence to the resurrection to either "prove" or render "probable" the historical claim of the resurrection.

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4 thoughts on “Wiccans: A Case Study in Faith and Historicity?”

  1. Well, are Wiccans "hung up" on whether Christmas is derived from..." or simply using it to add versimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing tale?

    I'm not sure how Harris or Dawkins get in here. Its really different to make a factual claim "so many people were martyrd for Christ *or* for pagan beliefs, some of which we might call wiccan" and arguing that those people died for a "real" god--whether Christ or Morrigu. Dawkins and Harris would, I take it, be interested in the actual historical facts surrounding the martyrdom of people or the origin of a given holiday while perfectly correct in believing that the ultimate cause, the existence of an actual divine being, is totally unproven based on the record.

    Its hard for me to see how Christians, especially, get out of the "coils of historicity"--in Hinduism all miracles are thought of as both happening and not happening in real time, just as time is thought of quite differently from western time. But christianity has staked some very serious claims to reality based on a specific event happening once, not metaphorically but really. Its quite easy to continue to believe in Christianity and Christ without having any physical or historical proof of the resurrection--time and archaeology being what it is, plus the story is pretty vague. But its a bit harder to argue that if definitive historical proof could be found that, for example, the Christ story and its accouterments had occurred in detail one hundred or more years prior to its hypothetical event that Christianity's claims to Truth with a capital T wouldn't be undermined. The religion has staked a huge amount of public argument on the precise timing of Jesus's appearance and death. To locate it in some other mythic tradition, in some other time and place, would really harm it. Logically speaking, and perhaps we aren't speaking logically. the same can be said for modern Wiccan arguments, of course, and I don't think anyone would argue differently.

    By the way: precisely the same challenge has been posed to the Mormon religion. Smith claimed to have been given a papyrus document that he translated and that produced the unique knowledge he had about the Mormons during their egyptian sojourn. That actual document was "lost" and couldn't be examined by modern scholarship until quite recently. In her book "Leaving the Saints" http://www.leavingthesaints.com/ Martha Beck says that the document resurfaced in the modern era--the very document that Joseph Smith had seen because it contains sketches that he is known to have drawn on it of his image of the first mormon church--and it turns out to be nothing more than a bit of the Egyptian book of the Dead. Modern Christians are just incredibly lucky that their own religious tradition, like mine, is buried so deep in a rather vague past.


  2. Richard

    Interesting post for a lot of reasons. The way Christianity has never been shy about taking on local garb is at the core of notions of both gospel and world--one man's syncretism is another's incarnation.

    I'm interested in how you frame the history issue at the end. This is the way it was framed in the early-mid parts of the 20th century and it has a lasting influence among the Jesus Seminar folks and fundamentalists of various stripes. This wide gulf between historical as verifiable fact and a non-hisorical/mythologized approach has proved not to be the only way to frame the historical. Modern history, from some perspectives, doesn't hold up well in light of this split too much better than the biblical accounts. Historical-critical readings of Scripture have lost their hegemonic hold in recent years for various "realistic" readings. Bible scholars like Brueggemann, Luke Johnson, and theologians like Moltmann and Welker have found fruitful ways to talk about this apart from the categories of fact and myth, as if those are mutually exclusive terms and as if one has a greater claim to truth, capital T, than the other. The relationship between faith and history is indeed snarly, and even more so given the canons of modern historicity, no longer the only game in town (which Dawkins and Harris seem totally oblivious to). On the Christian theology side of things there is a wide range of options available between "faith that demands a verdict" or removing the resurrection from the coils of historicity.

    And you are a theologian in my book.


  3. Since your blog is named "Experiential Theology" and you are a psychologist, wouldn't you adhere to an existentialist approach to theologizing? (which is really social scientific and psychologial understanding of "meaning making" events within history)...

    Isn't this what happened in the early Christian "movement", as it pertained to the Christ event? This way, history nor myth has to the ultimate description...either way could be meaningful because it affirms the need of experiential meaning making...

    So, whether Paul was a real figure, or the Christian tradition was the Chruch's myth, or Jesus was the incarnation of scientific understanding, or etc...it doesn't matter, in regards to the human person.

    I just find it presently a little distasteful to promote religion, because the reality is, that if the psychological need is there; there is much more of a real need of counselling, or political deliverance, than some "pie in the sky" hope for the future...

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