(RE)Defining Paganism Pt 1.5: The Conflation of Witchcraft and Religion

The most common materials for learning about Witchcraft are those found in the New-Age section of most book stores alongside books about UFO sightings, Angels, and more. The problem I have with most of these books is something I have pointed out multiple time: Conflation and inaccurate definitions.

Conflation is where you take two or more things which may share a few similarities, and call them by a single term or use their terminology interchangeably without recognizing the minute (or sometimes even large) differences between them. It is, in my opinion, is a very serious issue, and is one that leads to confusion and the inaccurate and often destructive homogenization of practices and terminology.

To use a potentially controversial set of words as an example to explain this, let’s use “Race” and “Ethnicity”. Both of these words are often conflated with one another and used interchangeably within our society because their definitions share similarities with one another: that they both attempt to “define” a specific subgroup of members of the Human Race. This conflation and interchangeable use of terms, however, ignores that there are in fact differences between what “Race” classifies, and what “Ethnicity” classifies (or, more correctly, how they go about classifying them); that there are still differences in definition which make them separate things which have different objectives, or methods of reaching those objectives. “Race” is a general (and now outdated) term which defines a subgroup of Humanity by biological factors and general geographical region, whereas “Ethnicity” is a more specific term which defines a subgroup of Humanity by individual Cultural and National terms.

So you can see how there is a problem with conflation and using terms interchangeably, and how it washes over the minor nuances of definition which actually make a very big deal when you break it all down. Yet a large portion of these books available today- which were written in the 1900’s during the formation and expansion of Modern Paganism and related practices- inaccurately conflate Paganism, Witchcraft, and Religion. Even more specifically, they often conflate Witchcraft with a Religious practice with emphasis on a specific duo of Religions (Neo-Wicca and Wicca)– which are then conflated with Paganism as a whole.

Now Paganism is defined in a broad number of highly problematic ways. So much so that we as a community have a hard time actually agreeing on a definition. Because of this, I can at least understand the reason why multiple individual Pagan Religions may be conflated with Paganism on a larger scale, but I see no excuse for the conflation of Witchcraft and Religion because they are two completely different things.

I’ve spoken about what Religion and Spirituality are before in articles like Theism vs Religion, and “Community” as a Pagan Definition, so I’ll spare you the lengthy reiteration of what religion actually is… But I haven’t spoken about Witchcraft before.

Make no mistake… Like with Paganism, there are several definitions of Magic and Witchcraft (even if I personally separate the two)… And (like with Paganism), most of these definitions are highly problematic.

Anthropologically, the definition of Witchcraft can be boiled down to “the ability of a person to cause harm by means of a personal power that resides within the body of the Witch”. Theologically speaking, the definition of Witchcraft may be condensed to “an attempt to influence outcomes using physical, symbolic, and tangible means”- though there are a large number of Theological definitions; the Dictionary itself defines it as “the practice of magic- especially black magic; the use of spells and the invocation of spirits”.

As I stated, these definitions are all problematic. Most notable among the problems are that they are outdated and focus on a particular kind of Magic which makes up only a small percentage of practicable Witchcraft. Because of this, they also hold onto malicious ideas and terminology which are not suitable ways through which Modern Witchcraft should be defined. In areas like this I believe that the community’s own definitions should be the only definitions applicable to the practice by other community members. Thankfully where we fail as a community to define “Pagan”, we succeed in defining Witchcraft in a coherent manner.

The existing modern Pagan Community defines it very differently among circles who recognize the problems with the New Age texts and “101” materials that people are often introduced to it through. To this portion of the Community who has moved away from the “101” texts, a general consensus seems to be that Witchcraft is a practicable skill that one may learn and perfect through trial, error, and study- though there are certainly people who have a natural talent or affinity for it just like every other skill; I have often heard things such as Cooking or Art used as comparisons.

I can only surmise and agree that the idea here- much like in the Anthropological definition- is that (whether or not you believe that the power comes from the individual or the materials used for the craft, a higher being, etc) everyone has the ability to harness that power in order to enact magical change through whatever magical systems, methods, or means that they wish to use.

Like any other skill as well, Witchcraft is not inherently Spiritual or Religious by nature; It belongs to no Religious system or practice- though there are several religions which utilize it, and it is even found alongside many Religious and non-Religious systems across the globe.

When one takes this into account, there are several things that are made clear (or at least should be). That is that 1.The practice of Modern Witchcraft may be practiced alongside any religion so long as the Religion’s own laws are taken into account; 2. Modern Witchcraft is versatile and there are several systems a practitioner may choose from- including the route of creating their own system; and 3. That there is no correct way to practice Modern Witchcraft, nor are there any requirements. The only cases in which requirements crop up is in established systems with histories, in which these requirements have been clearly established and documented.

In the end, we can establish a more formal community definition as: The skill or art of harnessing Magic- through sympathetic, ritual, non-ritual, symbolic, or other means- in order to enact change of a metaphysical nature.

It does not, however, have anything to do with Religion unless specific religions and individuals say that it does. And when they do, this is applicable to their own systems only, and not to all practitioners of Witchcraft as a whole.tumblr_od9z4kycsq1urp3f5o1_540


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