The Dark Side of Wicca’s Mainstream Appeal

The other day I pointed out how surprised I was that Wicca is now relatively mainstream (whether or not its popularity is a recent fad or a long-term trend remains to be seen). There is of course a downside to that — the more exposure Wicca gets the more I see articles that are part of a backlash against the religious movement.

For example, a lawsuit by a young Oklahoma woman whom school officials believed was a Wiccan has been covered widely because of the preposterous nature of the charges — allegedly she was suspended because her principal became convinced she cast a spell that caused a teacher’s illness. Unfortunately state laws prevent the school from commenting on the particulars of the case so we’re only getting the young girl’s side of the case, but there have been similar cases, including more serious ones involving child custody cases.

One of the things the young woman alleges is that officials saw a five-pointed star within a circle that she drew on her hand and told her she couldn’t display such occult symbols. It shouldn’t be forgotten that with the big Satanism scare propelled by some Christian fundamentalists and publicity seekers like Geraldo Rivera, some people urged even things like the Star of David be banned as an occult symbol (fringe fundamentalist Bob Larson recommended this in his book Satanism).

Maybe there is more to the story than the young woman is letting on, but the alleged behavior is hardly inconsistent with some of the more hysterical reactions to Wicca.

A common place I see anti-Wiccan articles are in conservative publications who are horrified at the rise of Wicca on campuses and see it as part of a general anti-Christian and/or anti-Western civilization trend. I think these arguments are largely misguided. One of the things a lot of conservatives forget is that, at least on college campuses, the Christian ministers are as likely to be far left wing activists as are anybody else. The most radical pro-socialist anti-Western civilization person I’ve personally met was a campus minister. On the other the basic underlying philosophy of Wicca is very much a pro-freedom ideology, even if the particular views of particular Wiccans definitely aren’t (like many religious people I’ve met, many of the Wiccans I’ve met tend to have a lot of moral distance between their professed moral outlook and their actual particular views which, in general, are very statist).

Another problem with Wicca is that some Wiccans complain about Christianity’s ahistoricism (such as the problem with Halloween I pointed out yesterday), but then perpetuate their own myths as encapsulated in this excerpt from a Reuters story on the Oklahoma case,

The lawsuit alleged Blackbear’s civil rights also were violated when school officials prohibited her from wearing or drawing in school any symbols related to Wicca, a religion that dates back to pre-Christian nature worship.

There is simply no basis in fact for claiming that Wicca is in any way a continuation of pre-Christian pagan religions. Aside from the fact that such claims absurdly oversimplify the incredibly broad range of practices that fall under the title of pre-Christian pagan religions, Wicca is, in fact, very much a creature and product of the 20th century. To say it is a continuation of ancient traditions is deceptive in the same way that the claims of 19th century pseudo-religious movements that they were a continuation of ancient Egyptian religious practices was deceptive (and in much the same way — the claims by those groups created a vast array of misconceptions about ancient Egypt that still persist in the same way that Wicca’s claim to be an extension of pre-Christian pagan religions is creating a series of myths about those ancient religions). In fact one of the things that always strikes me about Wicca is just how dependent it is upon cultural strains that are in many respects Christian in origin (especially it’s individualism).

The lasting impression of Wicca and its practitioners that I have is just how ordinary the religion is. Most news coverage, whether positive or negative, really plays up the exotic aspect that comes with calling oneself a witch. But after you scratch below the surface, Wicca’s pretty much like any of the other countless new religious movement that’s sprung up in human societies for millennia.

NOVA on Holocaust Denial

This week the PBS show NOVA has an hour-long broadcast on Holocaust Denial focusing on the recently concluded libel trial against Deborah Lipstadt in Great Britain. Lipstadt, author of Denying the Holocaust, was sued in the UK by Holocaust denier David Irving who claimed she libeled him. Even with the UK’s ridiculously lax libel laws — she had to prove not only that the Holocaust was a historical fact but that Irving intentionally distorted historical facts to arrive at his denial position — Lipstadt easily prevailed. The NOVA broadcast apparently recreates some of the issues raised at the libel trial.

Stop the Social Security Madness

Last week Cathy Young had a very well done article for Salon.Com arguing that at least one good reason for voting for Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush was his solid approach to Social Security reform. She has no illusions about Bush, hilariously noting that, “Of course it would be nice if Social Security privatization had a spokesman other than Bush; the man probably couldn’t make a convincing case for celebrating Mother’s Day, let alone privatizing retirement benefits,” but argues that compared to Al Gore’s “pernicious … handling of the issue” Bush is a solid alternative.

Now, I don’t plan on voting for Bush but Young’s dissection of Gore’s arguments are sound.

First, there is no Social Security trust fund. Look, by law when Social Security has a surplus the only thing it can do with that money is invest in government bonds. So Social Security buys a ton of government bonds, and the government takes the money and spends it. When Social Security wants that surplus it has to redeem the bonds. And guess where that money comes from? That’s right, out of our taxes. Gore recognizes this since his proposal calls for going one step further and paying Social Security recipients in part directly from general tax funds.

Second, Social Security isn’t a “sacred trust” (as I saw Gore call it recently). Rather it’s an investment opportunity that is so bad the government has to threaten people with jail if they don’t contribute. The return on Social Security is in the low single digits. You could probably get better terms from a loan shark.

Third, Social Security is largely an income transfer from the poor to the rich. Gore goes in front of Democratic audiences and says Bush will never be able to privatize Social Security for today’s young workers while simultaneously keeping its obligations to the elderly. But one of the problem is that Social Security transfers income to the elderly regardless of income. The wealthy retired person with an annual income of $100,000 gets the same Social Security benefit as the poorer retired person with an income of $18,000. And yet the idea of actually means testing Social Security benefits so they go to the elderly who truly need the benefit is anathema to Democrats. Apparently it breaks the sacred trust they have to tax the poor to subsidize the rich.

A system that combines privatization for younger workers while means testing benefits for recipients would go a long way to solving the problems with the poor performance of the SOcial Security system while simultaneously guaranteeing minimum income levels for the elderly poor.

(Which probably means it makes far too much sense to ever have a realistic chance of happening.)

October Was A Good Month

Not for me personally — I was sick most of the month. But the web server traffic is finally almost back to normal after the problems we experienced over the summer.

In October 1999, we served up about 260,000 page views. We’re off that level a bit in 2000 at 200,000 page views this month, but server traffic was 50% higher in October over September, so we’re definitely headed in the right direction. The way things are going and the new features I’ve been able to implement in the past few months, I’m pretty confident we’ll reach a 400,000 page view month sometime in Q1 2001.

Kinda small potatoes compared to some sites, but who would have thought at the beginning of the 1990s that in less than a decade it would be possible to reach hundreds of thousands of people for next to nothing (I’m currently paying $320/month for a dedicated server — I think we charged more than that for a full page ad in my college newspaper.)

Life is good.

Loftus Puts Nail In Recovered Memory Coffin

In the 1980s the so-called Recovered Memory or false memory syndrome (as its critics termed it) exploded onto the American scene with a vengeance. Not a few people were sent to prison based entirely on memories of abuse, much of it centered around alleged widespread Satanic cult conspiracies, that they claimed they repressed as children but were able to “recover” as adults with help from therapists. Sexual abuse guidebooks like Courage to Heal went so far as to suggest that most mental maladies faces by women, from low self esteem to overeating to depression, were likely caused by repressed memories of sexual abuse.

The recovered memory movement’s own excesses were its downfall. Although many people were credulous of the claims of Satanic conspiracies and repeated the mantra that victims could never be doubted, in fact the claims made by recovered memory therapists and patients became so bizarre that all but the true believers began to wonder if something else might be going on.

Elizabeth Loftus, an expert in memory who did pioneering studies on the fallibility of eye witness accounts of crime, helped take a lot of air out of the recovered memory claims by demonstrating that it was relatively easy to implant false memories into experimental subjects. Add to that the fact that many of the therapy techniques advocated by repressed memory experts used exactly the sort of methods Loftus found likely to result in fake memories, and by the mid-1990s recovered memory therapy was in full retreat. Some recovered memory therapists found themselves on the short end of civil lawsuits brought by their patients and/or people they had help put in jail based on recovered memory.

In an upcoming study to be published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, Loftus, Giuliana Mazooni and Irving Kirsch should manage to finally put the nail in the coffin of the recovered memory movement. In previous experiments, Loftus had demonstrated that false memories of routine events, such as being lost in a mall as a child, could be implanted, but now she’s managed to show that false memories of fantastic events — in this case demonic possession — could be implanted even in subjects who were initially skeptical about the very existence of the phenomenon.

In the experiments, conducted on 200 Italian students, subjects were asked to give a detailed life inventory including how plausible they felt demonic possession was and whether or not they had ever been possessed by a demon as a child. All subjects initially said they didn’t think demonic possession was very plausible and they had never experienced a demonic possession as a child.

Some of the respondents were then given a series of articles to read that dealt with demonic possession and portrayed it as something that was plausible and not uncommon. They were then asked to fill out a questionnaire about fear and anxiety, and some of the respondents were then falsely told that their particular set of fears indicated that they probably witnessed a demonic possession as a child. This is important because, again, the modus operandi of books like Courage to Heal is to tell people that if they are depressed or suffering from sexual dysfunction or whatever, it is likely a symptom of having been sexually abused as children regardless of whether the person has a memory of such an incident.

On a follow-up interview, 18 percent of the people told their responses indicated they had witnessed a demonic possession changed their original position and now agreed that not only was demonic possession plausible, but claimed they had witnessed a demonic possession as a child. Three-quarters of the rest of the subjects also changed their mind about demonic possessions, but not quite as drastically as the one-fifth who claimed to have witnessed a demonic possession themselves as a child.

“Previous experiments created memories that were plausible,” Loftus told Wired magazine, “But even something that’s implausible can be infused with plausibility. It’s a two-stage process. First you increase the plausibility of an event and then suggest it happened to the subject. It mimics the kind of thing that happens in a physician’s office. It’s like getting an X-ray and having the doctor tell you that you have pneumonia. But in this case, low self-esteem and depression means you were abused as a child. It’s an analog for that kind of situation. … This shows why people watching ‘Oprah’ or those in group therapy believe these kinds of things happened to them. People borrow memories from others and adopt them as their own experiences. It’s part of the normal process of memory.”

Most courts have already started routinely rejecting recovered memories as reliable for testimony, and this should help further that trend as well as helping to end the debate with those who still insist that recovered memories of ritual sexual abuse are genuine. Thanks to Loftus’ efforts, countless innocent people will be spared the horror of false accusations of sexual abuse and those who suffered from the witch hunt in the 1980s and 1990s might be able to restore a semblance of their lives.


Those memories can be made or simply borrowed. Scott LaFee, San Diego Union-Tribune, October 25, 2000.

Beware a rash of exorcisms. Leander Kahney, Wired, October 31, 2000.

Parkinson's Breakthrough in Monkey Research

Researchers experimenting with monkeys successfully tested a gene therapy technique that reversed the brain damage associated with Parkinson’s disease.

For reasons that are still not understood, people suffering from Parkinson’s disease do not produce enough of the brain chemical dopamine which is necessary for signals in the brain to be transmitted. As a result Parkinson’s sufferers experience a degenerative loss of motor control including difficulty walking, talking, smiling and swallowing. Secondary effects such as pneumonia and stroke end up killing many with Parkinson’s diseases.

In a study published in Science, scientists used a group of eight monkeys with a Parkinson’s-like disease and another group of eight monkeys without the disease. The monkeys suffering from the brain disease were injected with a genetically altered virus that was designed to boost dopamine production within the brain.

In both cases the virus dramatically boosted brain dopamine levels over the eight months of the of the study and ameliorated the Parkinson’s-like symptoms that the monkey’s experienced. Three of the monkeys in the first group who had severe Parkinson’s symptoms were restored to almost normal motor functions according to study author Jeffrey Kordower.

In the second group, five of the monkeys who developed Parkinson’s were given the virus while five were not. One monkey in each group died for unknown reasons. Of the four in each group left, three with the Parkinson’s symptoms were completely free of the disease after receiving the virus injection, while all four monkeys in the control group became severely impaired.

The researchers will soon be present the FDA with a proposal to test the gene therapy in humans and such trials could begin in 3 to 5 years. One possible obstacle is that the researchers are not sure if the brain cells that are responsible for dopamine production in human beings will respond in the same way that their counterparts in the monkeys did. Even if they don’t, however, this is important evidence that gene therapy designed to modify brain cells of Parkinson’s suffers to boost dopamine levels is likely to be a very viable avenue of research, even if the methods used to get there might be different in human beings than in monkeys.


Hope of Parkinson’s ‘cure’. The BBC, October 27, 2000.

Gene therapy may relieve Parkinson’s disease. Paul Recer, The Associated Press, October 26, 2000.