I originally wrote this in the mid-’90s when I ran the Pagan Educational Network. It’s held up remarkably well over the years.
I have always taken my spirituality seriously. Born into a Catholic family, I studied the New Testament for guidance in understanding life. After a young cousin died when I was fourteen, I developed a devotion to the Virgin Mary while working through my grief.
As I grew older I found myself struggling to fit the mold the Church offered. As an intelligent, passionate, belligerent young woman, I found myself pressured to be meek, passive, and suffering—none of which fit my personality. I studied Marian literature to learn what it meant to be a good woman in the Church. One pamphlet said Mary had appeared in a vision to children and told them that women should not wear short sleeves. Rather than feeling angry or skeptical, I despaired. I knew I could not fit into this mold.
When I was eighteen I spiraled into a serious depression, frequently contemplating suicide. One night I went outside, turned to God in utter despair and pleaded with him to help. “I will never need you more than I need you now,” I cried. I wanted a sign, some inner sense that I was not alone. But as I looked up at the starry sky I saw only empty space. My despair turned to iron-cold numbness. I resigned myself to waiting for the madness to go away on its own.
This event was the most obvious step in a process away from theism and organized religion. It was now possible to question my faith. As I embarked on my college career I met people of all religions—and no religion at all. I continued to question my beliefs, eventually settling on atheism. People’s belief in a “Supreme Being” seemed based on their desire for justice and meaning rather than any sort of evidence. That is the essence of faith, my father had told me long before. But I didn’t want to wait until I was dead for justice. I wanted justice now. I was no longer interested in forcing myself into someone else’s mold of what a good person was. I had my own beliefs, my own values, and my own politics. I wanted to be a kingdom unto myself.
As I matured, my angry, self-righteous atheism mellowed into merely an empty atheism. I had always been a spiritual person. But I knew of no faith which would allow me to retain my autonomy while offering a framework for spiritual development. One night I went to talk with an acquaintance about my dilemma. Jim was brilliant, well-read, and open to spirituality in all its forms. When I self-consciously described my situation, he recommended reading Drawing Down the Moon by Margot Adler. This book is a study of neo-Paganism in the United States. Written by a reporter and intellectual, he suggested it would appeal to my rational side while describing independent, ecstatic spirituality.
I was immediately fascinated by the book. Neo-Paganism (usually called “Paganism” by practitioners) is a collection of diverse religions which are nature-centered and rooted in personal experience. While some Pagan religions provide training structures, the movement as a whole has no hierarchy, no holy book, no one, right, true authority. Pagan religions encourage the individual to develop her own relationship with Divinity, however she views it. And, most intriguing to me, you could be an atheist Pagan!
While several of the faiths were appealing (particularly Druidism), I was clearly drawn to Witchcraft. Witchcraft (sometimes called Wicca, a term I hate) is a federally-recognized religion distinguished from other Pagan faiths by its heavy use of ritual, its emphasis on magic and healing, and its particular worship of the Gods. Its central tenet is “If it harm none, do what you will.” Like most other Americans, I had grown up believing Witches were evil. But I learned that Witchcraft is a peaceful, life-affirming faith which emphasizes personal responsibility and service to the community. Witches practice magic to heal the self, the community, and the Earth. We celebrate all aspects of human experience, whether spiritual, intellectual, emotional, psychological, or sexual. Rather than viewing life as something to transcend, Witches relish being alive and draw strength from the everyday blessings we experience: braiding our daughter’s hair, baking bread, or sharing a hug with someone we love.
Theo/alogy is left to the individual. In my case, I found Divinity in Nature and the life force itself. I had always been fascinated by physics. Now my intellectual awe of the universe was augmented by a spiritual understanding. My Divinity is not an eternal, transcendent entity, only a holistic process of ebb and flow. I call this life force “the Goddess,” as do many of my fellow and sister Pagans. Some Pagans work only with her, sometimes under the name Diana or Astarte. Other Pagans, particularly Witches, honor a divine pair such as Isis and Osiris. Others work with a whole pantheon of gods, such as the Norse pantheon. And still others call on gods and goddesses from many cultures in addition to tree spirits, elves, and fairies. Mystical experiences from all over the world are honored within Paganism. We draw on the faith of our ancestors and the beliefs and practices of surviving indigenous peoples, but update them for our use today.
My understanding of divinity opened doors to a rich, exciting world which challenges me intellectually and spiritually. It does not demand I believe a certain creed or force me into a role I don’t desire or fit. As a Pagan—as a Witch—I can be powerful, passionate, intelligent, fun-loving, compassionate, loving, and dynamic. My spirituality supports my personality, values, and politics. It challenges me to develop continually into a more whole, healthy human being. It offers a community of like-minded individuals. It answers my questions about the meaning of existence, the importance of justice, and the value of change. I have no regrets about leaving my given faith behind. In Pagan Witchcraft, I have found my home.