Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

She turned me into a newt (I got better)

The last time the Catholic church took on the witches, church leaders didn't mess around.  They just burned a bunch of them at the stake, and then looked around for more.  And I have to admit Exodus 22:18, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live," is pretty unequivocal.

Since burning women is now generally frowned upon in polite society, the church has had to explore other avenues.  The latest was just released a couple of weeks ago by Catholic Truth Press, the Vatican's official publisher in the United Kingdom.  Entitled "Wicca and Witchcraft:  Understanding the Dangers," by Elizabeth Dodd, it uses gentle persuasion and "shared concerns about issues such as the environment" to try to convert Wiccans to Christianity.

Dodd, interviewed by the Daily Mail last week, was asked if she thought that Harry Potter had increased the appeal of Wicca.  She replied that any young person who dabbles in magic is risking long-term harm.

"The use of magic, the practice of witchcraft, offends God because it is rooted in our sinful and fallen nature," she stated. "It attempts to usurp God."

I checked to see how much Catholic Truth Press was charging for this updated version of the Malleus Maleficarum.  Turns out it's only $3.12...

... but it's sold out.

I'm not sure how to interpret this.  Did it sell out because people thought it was funny and wanted to have a copy to laugh at?  Was it because they seriously think witches are a threat to young people, and wanted to do their part to convert them to Catholicism?  Myself, if I had a choice of leaving my kids with a witch or with a Catholic priest, I'd choose the witch in about 0.0001 milliseconds.

Honestly, the Wiccans are an interesting bunch. You may not know that there is actually a Church and School of Wicca, which (in their own words) "...finds its roots in ancient ways. It has psychic connections and sympathy with those who were burnt in the medieval period, and indeed with all individuals who have been oppressed and killed in the name of religion."

Unfortunately, this isn't really all that accurate.  Wicca was cobbled together from hyper-romanticized 19th century mystery cults in about 1954 by a retired English civil servant named Gerald Gardner.  Gardner claimed that Wicca (which he sometimes referred to as "The Craft") represented a survival of the "knowledge of the Druids" that had been secretly remembered and practiced by initiates since before the time of the Romans, and based upon this Secret Knowledge he developed a whole body of beliefs and rituals for his followers to practice.

The problem is (well, one of many problems is) that next to nothing is known of what the Druids (i.e. the ancient Celtic priesthood) actually believed.  The Celts wrote down very little -- they had a lettering system (the Ogham runes) which are poorly understood, and of which very few examples have survived.  The Romans wrote down some observation of Celtic ritual, but to say that the Romans are a biased source is a colossal understatement.  They thought that the Celts were barbarians (some etymologies claim that the word "barbarian" itself comes from the fact that to cultured Roman and Greek ears, the language of the Celts sounded like "bar-bar-bar-bar-bar") and therefore paid little attention to them except as the Unfortunate Prior Inhabitants of Lands the Romans Want.  It probably didn't help matters that the Celts painted their bodies blue and went into battle stark naked.  That sort of thing often makes an impression, but it's seldom a favorable one.

And in all of the Celtic lands, thousands of years of oppression from an occupation government, and the anti-pagan efforts of the dominant religion, effectively erased all but bits and pieces of the original beliefs of the Celts.  Certain symbols have survived, (e.g. the Green Man and the Horned God), but other than a vague notion of what those represented, we really have nothing in the way of concrete knowledge of what the Celtic peoples believed prior to the Romans.

That said, I have to admit that the Wiccans are really pretty decent folks.  Their basic tenet, "The Wiccan Rede," is "An it harm none, do what ye will."  Other than the rather pretentious wording, it's a good basic rule for life.  Reverence for, and protection of, nature is also something that will get no argument from me.

But I can't help the feeling that the whole thing is, well, vaguely silly.  The bizarre, quasi-Middle-English verbiage doesn't help; why "The Wiccan Rede" isn't just "as long as you don't hurt anybody, do what you want," I couldn't say.  Maybe "an it harm none" sounds more like what a Druid would say, I don't know.  Actually, a good bit of their terminology falls into the unintentionally humorous department.  I particularly like "working skyclad" for "running around in the woods naked."  Now, I've got nothing whatsoever against running around in the woods naked, other than the problem of giving deerflies and mosquitoes unfettered access to your tender bits; but "skyclad" just sounds preposterous to me.  Weddings are called "handfasting."  Spells are "magick" (I know if you heard it pronounced, you could hear the "k" at the end and distinguish it from "magic," which is what David Copperfield does).

The costumes also don't help much, although (to be fair) they don't look all that much sillier than the vestments worn by Catholic priests.

Even with all this, Elizabeth Dodd and the other Catholic worrywarts are correct that Wicca is growing.  There are now splinter sects (you knew it had to happens sooner or later) -- including the "Reformed Druids of North America" (named presumably to distinguish them from any Unreformed Druids who are running around skyclad in your local woods).  A US government website estimates that in 2001, 134,000 individuals in in the US identified themselves as Wiccans, as compared with 8,000 in 1990.  That, my friends, is a lot of Wiccans.

There has been a lot of argument over whether Wicca is actually a religion (usually this argument has erupted in the context of the US government's tax-shelter policy toward religions, and in one well-publicized case, the use of Wiccan symbols on a gravestone in Arlington Cemetery).  To me, from the standpoint of having a lot of silly beliefs based upon no evidence whatsoever, and involving apparently enormous amounts of wishful thinking, Wicca is clearly a religion.

The amusing thing, to me, is that now you have people like Elizabeth Dodd claiming that the Wiccans need to become Catholics, because her set of unsupported, zero-evidence beliefs are better than their set of unsupported, zero-evidence beliefs.  I find the whole thing screamingly funny.  Hey, the more time they spend yelling at each other, the less time they'll have to send hate mail to me.

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