Wiccans Keep the Faith With a Religion Under Wraps

New York Times/May 17, 2007
By Neela Banerjee

Dumfries, Virginia — Above the woman’s fireplace hangs her wedding picture, taken in a Lutheran church years ago. Below it, on the mantelpiece, is a small Wiccan altar: two candles, a tiny cauldron, four stones to represent the elements of nature and a small amethyst representing her spirit.

The wedding portrait is always there. But whenever someone comes to visit, the woman sweeps the altar away. Raised Southern Baptist in Virginia and now a stay-at-home mother of two in this Washington suburb, she has told almost no one — not her relatives, her friends or the other mothers in her children’s playgroups — that she is Wiccan.

Among the most popular religions to have flowered since the 1960s, Wicca — a form of paganism — still faces a struggle for acceptance, experts on the religion and Wiccans themselves said. In April, Wiccans won an important victory when the Department of Veterans Affairs settled a lawsuit and agreed to add the Wiccan pentacle to a list of approved religious symbols that it will engrave on veterans’ headstones.

But Wicca in the civilian world is largely a religion in hiding. Wiccans fear losing their friends and jobs if people find out about their faith.

“I would love to be able to say ‘Accept us for who we are,’ but I can’t, mainly because of my kids,” said the suburban mother, who agreed to talk only on the condition of anonymity. “Children can be cruel, and their parents can be even more cruel, and I don’t want my kids picked on for the choice their mommy made.”

She worries that because most people know little about Wicca, they will assume she worships Satan. She fears that her family and friends will abandon her and that the community will ostracize her.

David Steinmetz, professor of the history of Christianity at Duke Divinity School, said, “Wiccans have so many things stacked against them, from what the Bible says about the practice of magic to the history in this country of witch trials, that the image of them adds up to something so contrary to the consensus about genuine religion that still shapes American society.”

Wiccans worship the divine in nature. Some practice it privately in their homes, and others worship with large congregations. Most people do not grow up Wiccan but come to it from another religion.

“It’s a very open religion,” said Helen A. Berger, a sociology professor at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. “Each person can do what they want, and they don’t have to belong to a group. They take things from a number of different sources, like Eastern religions, Celtic practices. You are the ultimate authority of your own experience.”

But its symbols and practices elicit suspicion from outsiders, Wiccans and religion scholars say.

Many Wiccans practice some form of magic or witchcraft, which they say is a way of affecting one’s destiny, but which many outsiders see as evil. The Wiccan pentacle, a five-pointed star inside a circle, is often confused with symbols of Satanism. (The five points of the star represent the elements of nature — earth, air, fire and water — and the spirit, within the eternal circle of life.)

It is unclear how many Wiccans and other pagans there are. The 2001 American Religious Identification Survey by the City University of New York found that Wicca was the country’s fastest-growing religion, with 134,000 adherents, compared with 8,000 in 1990. The actual number may be greater, Ms. Berger said. Some people may have been unwilling to identify themselves as pagan or Wiccan for the survey. Others combine paganism with other religions.

Wiccans face less backlash now than in the past. The Internet provides information about Wicca, and the popularity of the Harry Potter novels has made magic seem a force for good, scholars and Wiccans say.

David and Jeanet Ewing, coordinators of two pagan groups in the Washington area, estimate that at least 1,000 Wiccans and other pagans live in Northern Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia. At least half actively hide their faith from their relatives, Ms. Ewing said. Many also hide their faith from their employers, Mr. Ewing said.

One such person is a 58-year-old former Roman Catholic who has been an auditor for 30 years in what he calls “one of the most buttoned-down departments in one of the most sacrosanct agencies” of the federal government.

“I put on this Joe Taxpayer suit, and it’s like living two lives,” he said. “A minority would have a problem with me, but it would be a big problem. They would assume we are doing weird things, illegal, immoral things, at all hours. They wouldn’t want to really know what we do, but they would go with their presuppositions instead.”

The auditor said that by “coming out of the broom closet,” he risked ostracism at work and perhaps being pushed into early retirement, which would affect his pension. “I don’t even want to contemplate it,” he said.

A New York marketing executive finds the city so secular that being passionate about religion is often met with a smirk, and it would be worse if people knew he was Wiccan, he said. “In my personal and private life, I like to be taken seriously,” he said. “Pagans are associated with the ’70s and hippies and counterculture. New York is a Type A city, and it’s all about getting ahead, and the kooky ones don’t get ahead.”

Members of other religions, including Jews and Catholics, have sometimes been forced to mask their faith in the past because of religious bias, Professor Steinmetz said. But it is rare, he added, for people to keep their religion from parents and grandparents, as many Wiccans do.

The Virginia mother has not told her mother or grandmother that she is a Wiccan. “I have a deep-seated fear that they will say, ‘I can’t be a part of this, you’re raising your kids as evil,’ ” she said.

She attends classes about Wicca on Friday nights, and she has yet to caution her older child, a preschooler, not to tell anyone about them.

“My son says, ‘Yeah, Mommy’s going to witch school,’ ” she said. “I’m just waiting for the day he says that in front of a teacher.”

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