Belonging to a religious minority is difficult in any culture, and Wiccan and Neopagan subculture in the United States differs both from the mainstream culture to which it belongs and from the various subcultures of the mainstream religions in many important respects that can make interactions with the larger public alternately problematic and rewarding.
I. Society-level consequences
How Wiccans and Neopagans have been stigmatized by the majority religions and by the secular community.
The Wiccan religion isn’t very populous anywhere in the world, with adherents estimated conservatively at a mere 800,000 in the United States (Adherents.com, 2012) and a paltry million or two worldwide, yet it’s one of the most visible minority faiths in the English-speaking world, owing partly to Wicca’s origins in England and roots in Anglo-Saxon literary tradition, being one of the only religions actually native to the Anglosphere, and partly, perhaps even predominantly, to the “Diabolical Witchcraft” hysteria that took place in Western Europe and colonial America only a few centuries past. What constitutes sacred religious practice and what constitutes “occult” or “forbidden” knowledge differs from one society to the next, and it just so happens that what Wiccans consider sacred was viewed as dangerous heresy in the religious and political climate of most of Western society prior to the emergence modern Western thought and its relatively recent bent toward religious tolerance and embracement of cultural diversity. As this is still but a trend, however, there remain strong and influential vestiges of intolerance in our society that fear even the most reluctant acceptance or slightest allowance of non-Judeo-Christian elements in our culture as an anti-Christian sleight against God and an assault on the traditional mores and values of mainstream society. What’s more is even amongst those styling themselves “progressives” or “forward-thinkers”, there is a perception, due mainly to the fact that Wicca draws most of its inspiration from the pagan religions of pre-Christian Europe, that Wicca and other neopagan religions are a reaction against secularism desiring to plunge us even further back into the superstitious past than we were during the reign of Christianity, back to a time of mysticism and magic when people were so backward and ignorant that they conjured up not just one god to explain those aspects of life beyond their limited comprehension, but many gods and spirits inhabiting the unseen even of that which was most familiar. Thus, Wiccans and other neopagans are broadly rejected by both the mainstream religious community and the mainstream secular community.
II. Demographic-level consequences
How belonging to a religious minority affects relationships with other religious groups and new social encounters.
While the demography of the neopagan community is generally reflective of the larger public to which it belongs in terms of gender, racial diversity, ethnic affiliation, education level and socioeconomic status, Wicca specifically is remarkable in that female adherents account for approximately seventy-five percent of the religion in America (Burke, 2013). This seems to stem from the fact that most of the persons accused of Witchcraft under the patrifocal (male-dominated) social climate of medieval Europe were women, giving rise to the idea that Witches are primarily female and antagonistic toward men; this makes embracing the term “Witch” as a self-descriptor something of an act of defiance, both for women who find it empowering to describe themselves proudly with a term that was once used to oppress and defame women and for men who choose to defy the commonplace misconception that the term “Witch” is implicitly non-masculine (for a while, it was common for people to think there were special terms like “warlock” or “wizard” for male practitioners of magic, however the words “witch” and “wizard” are inherently genderless, instead distinguishing types of practitioners that later became gender-stereotyped as their public images grew evermore vulnerable to caricature, while the term “warlock” was originally a Christian term meaning “betrayer” or “oath-breaker” and is now considered an extremely pejorative epithet for an untrustworthy person of either sex). Coupled with the religion’s non-mainstream status and individualistic, almost anarchistic organization and resultant appeal to non-conformist counter-cultures like the punk movement and goth subculture, as well as the religion’s tolerance and acceptance of non-mainstream sexual orientations and gender affiliations (this is a feature shared with other shamanic religions such as those of the aboriginal peoples of eastern Asia and the Americas, in which persons who fall outside traditional gender-roles are typically seen as gifted and especially suited for the work of a shaman, much the same as artists and intellectuals in mainstream Western society tend to set themselves apart by defying social norms), this has given rise to the expectation that the stereotypical Witch be either a promiscuously bisexual, bra-burning hippie or a man-hating Lesbian goth-chick. A consequence of these stereotypes is that male Wiccans are nearly always prejudged as “weird” or effeminate by outsiders, even though within the neopagan community male Witches have their own sets of masculine stereotypes based on pagan/primitivist gender roles.
III. Individual-level consequences
How being Neopagan in general or Wiccan in particular affects day-to-day interpersonal relationships.
For the most part, these misconceptions and stereotypes are of negligible impact on the daily life of Wiccans and neopagans, particularly in larger cities and other centrally located venues where the local populations have had more exposure to what Wiccans are like and how Wiccans conduct themselves in the real world. Occasionally Wiccans might find themselves nagging their friends about littering or some such, as Wicca is a nature-centered faith, or have to deal with Christian friends and relatives proselytizing about how they need to be “saved”, or have to hear about how their “Heathen gods” are “false idols”, but otherwise contemporary Western culture seems to have adapted rather nicely to Wiccans being “out of the broom closet”. Unfortunately, in some smaller, more outlying communities that know little about Wicca and Witchcraft beyond the sensationalistic media and overzealous law-enforcement reports during the dangerously reactionary “Satanic Ritual Abuse” moral panic of the late 1980s and ‘90s, which only in hindsight did the mainstream public realize was based entirely on misinformation and fear of the unknown (for example, people reacted to the game Dungeons & Dragons with fear that it was being used to recruit people into the world of real occultism and sorcery simply because the game allows for characters to use magical abilities and cast spells, while the game itself is set in a pseudo-medieval secondary world in which the magical practices of certain types of characters follow the negative stereotypes that existed in medieval Europe, including apparent “devil worship” and the summoning of evil spirits, reinforcing the delusion that Witchcraft and Satanism are somehow connected), it is still rather common for people to react to elements of the Wiccan religion out of ignorance and fear. In remote localities, a Witch’s athame or “Witches’ blade” can easily be misinterpreted as a weapon by law-enforcement officials who don’t realize that it’s double-bladed because standard Wiccan ritual requires a back-and-forth cutting motion in the air, not because it’s intended to stab flesh, and who don’t realize that using the Witches’ blade the way they envision would be considered profaning a sacred object. In such isolated communities, the traditionally black ritual robes Wiccans wear in circle are often misinterpreted as Satanic, whilst the tradition of practicing sky-clad (nude) is sometimes misinterpreted as wanton sexual revelry in some sort of bizarre Satanic orgy. And, of course, the insignia of the Wiccan religion draws negative reactions from the sorts of folks who look for Satanic symbols wherever they can. Who hasn’t been subjected, after all, to conspiracy theorists trying to convince people that the Masonic symbolism and Latin words on US currency or the crescent moon and twelve stars on the Proctor & Gamble logo are Satanic? To those familiar with such things, these words and images are perfectly normal and innocent, yet to those who haven’t any idea what these mean, they are shockingly alien and therefore to be feared and attacked as a matter of moral vigilance. To treat whatever is unfamiliar as a threat to that which is familiar seems only prudent to many people.
Being Wiccan/Neopagan makes life interestingly complicated and frustratingly enjoyable.
It’s only human to try and define the unfamiliar in the context of the familiar, and all too easy to fall back on dichotomies of comfort that depend on familiarity as the prime criterion of virtue. Secularism began as a reaction against the unquestioned authority of a church that once dismissed the virtues of secular science as “pagan”, presuming it was just another form of idolatry designed by the devil to detract from the worship of God, and yet, now, in an historical irony, atheists often dismiss the virtues of modern pagan religions like Wicca as “theism”, presuming it to be no different from the Abrahamic religions that have held society back. As one of the most brilliant authors of the English language once said, “[t]he oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown,” (Lovecraft, 1927).
“Statistical summary pages: W". Adherents.com. (http://www.adherents.com/Na/i_w.html) Retrieved by Wikipedia on 7 April 2012 [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wicca, as of May 11th, 2014].
Burke, Daniel (30 October 2013). "For some Wiccans, Halloween can be a real witch". CNN.com. Belief Blog. (http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/10/30/for-some-wiccans-halloween-is-a-real-witch/) Retrieved by Wikipedia on 10 November 2013 [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wicca, as of May 11th, 2014].
“Supernatural Horror in Literature” by H. P. Lovecraft (1927)