Several of my readers alerted me over the last week to an online essay by Christian writer Rod Dreher on the rising popularity of malevolent magic and demonolatry (the worship of malign spirits) on the leftward end of the US political scene. For so loaded a topic, Dreher’s essay is thoughtful and admirably measured; what’s more, Dreher doesn’t shy away from the spiritual implications of his theme, or to its importance as a warning of coming changes.
It’s thus arguably unfair to do what I’m about to do, and focus first on the three principal failings in his essay instead of on its achievements. What makes this particularly unfair is that the failings aren’t Dreher’s fault—both of them derive from the source he used, an essay by British academic Tara Isabella Burton. The reason I’m focusing on them here is that certain crucial issues have been left out of Dreher’s argument and, I suspect, his understanding of the situation he describes. Put those issues back in their proper places and the issues he’s discussing, while no less important than he suggests, have a rather different message to communicate.
We’ll start with the most obvious of the failings, which is Dreher’s lack of awareness that the various spiritual and religious movements he’s talking about—Wicca, Neopaganism, occultism, the New Age, and so on—aren’t all the same thing. It’s a little as though I insisted that Dreher himself is a Mormon and the Archbishop of Canterbury is the spiritual leader of England’s Jews. After all, they’re all monotheists who revere the Old Testament, so what’s the difference?
Now of course such confusions are almost universal when the cultural mainstream is obliged to take notice of minority religions. Christianity got the same treatment back when it was a new religious movement trying to find a niche in the Roman world. The oldest known depiction of the Crucifixion, for example, is a snarky graffito in Rome that shows a crudely drawn figure praying to a crucified man with a donkey’s head; underneath are the words “Alexamenos adores his god.” It was a common religious smear back then to insist that Jews secretly worshiped a god with a donkey’s head, and it’s easy to imagine the graffiti artist thinking, “Jews, Christians, what’s the difference?” as he scrawled his insult.
Alexamenos and his fellow Christians doubtless had to put up with a lot of this sort of casual ignorance, from people who’d get irate if you confused Jupiter Capitolinus with Jupiter Feretrius but insisted that Judaism, Christianity, and Gnosticism were all the same thing. It’s understandable if unfortunate—and one of the things that makes it unfortunate is that ignoring the differences between various flavors of alternative religion makes it much harder to track shifts in the collective imagination that can have drastic results down the road.
So that’s the first failing in Dreher’s essay. The second is a failure to notice that the growing popularity of malevolent magic isn’t shared by the whole range of alternative spiritualities that embrace magical practice, but is specific to certain movements within that highly diverse gallimaufry of minority faiths. Dreher (or for that matter Burton) could have fixed that easily with a little more research, but again, it’s a common mistake.
The third failing I have in mind could also have been cleared up with a little more research, but it’s equally widespread, at least in the conservative circles in which Dreher has his intellectual home, and it’s also very much on display in Burton’s essay. The failing in question? The casual equation of occultism with the leftward end of the political spectrum. That mistake was probably inevitable once Burton, and Dreher after her, started treating the whole range of magic-friendly alternative spiritualities as a single homogenized thing. You have to grasp the diversity of the movements in question to see that the mediagenic activities of fashionably liberal witches in Brooklyn bookstores aren’t necessarily an accurate indicator of what’s going on elsewhere.
This mistake is all the more embarrassing in that the activities of alt-right occultists in the run-up to Donald Trump’s election in 2016 have gotten a certain amount of media play since then. Still, most of what’s going on in the world of occultism never finds its way to the mainstream media. You can watch television all day and night for years, for example, and never find out that Heathenry—the worship of Norse and Germanic Pagan deities—is spreading rapidly in the reddest of redneck demographics in the US, and tends to correlate very closely to populist political views and gun ownership. You won’t learn that occult lodges on the rightward end of the political and cultural spectrum are widespread in today’s English-speaking world, or that chaos magic—one of the most widely practiced of the current crop of magical traditions—is as popular with the alt-right as it is with the soi-disant “Magical Resistance.”
Nor, for that matter, will you learn of the old-fashioned occult schools—“old-fashioned” here meaning that they date from before the cultural upheavals of the 1960s—which have been pursuing their work quietly for anything up to a century and a half, and arguably have had much more cultural influence than the antics of pop-culture Neopagans. (A vast amount of what was taught by the New Age in its heyday, and an even larger amount of the thinking that underlies popular “self-help” books and ideologies today, was borrowed without acknowledgment from lessons circulated by these occult schools.) Most of the schools in question have a strict policy of disengagement from the political sphere, and most of them have maintained that policy even under the pressures of today’s bitter political polarizations.
So it’s necessary to approach the subject of Dreher’s essay with three interpretive tools he didn’t have. The first of these is the recognition that the realm of alternative magical spiritualities in today’s Western nations isn’t a single homogeneous subculture, but an assortment of different traditions and movements, some of them sharply at variance with others, with only limited degrees of overlap. The second is the recognition that the traditions and movements in question differ, among other things, in their political commitments. The third is the recognition that these same traditions and movements also differ sharply in their participation in the turn toward malevolent magic and demonolatry that Dreher discusses.
Apply those recognitions, and the obvious question is whether there’s any correlation between the second and third—between the political orientations of various groups and movements within the world of alternative magical spiritualities, on the one hand, and changes in the attitudes of those same groups and movements toward malevolent magic and demonolatry. That’s the question that opens the door to the insights Dreher missed, because there is indeed such a correlation: the further to the political left a magical tradition or movement places itself, the more likely it is that that tradition or movement used to reject malevolent magic and demonolatry, but has now embraced one or both of them.
That change has been most drastic in the pop-culture Neopaganism on display at the Brooklyn bookstore Dreher’s essay mentioned. Some history will be helpful here. While it likes to claim ancient roots, popular Neopaganism was for all practical purposes born on October 31, 1979, with the publication of two books, Drawing Down the Moon by Margot Adler and The Spiral Dance by Starhawk. Before then, if you wanted to be a Wiccan, you either had to find a coven willing to initiate you or invent a “grandmother story” and found a coven of your own. Before then, furthermore, Wicca was relatively apolitical, and many of the attitudes toward society and sex you’ll find in the older strata of Wiccan literature are far from politically correct by today’s standards.
Adler’s and Starhawk’s books marked a massive break with the older tradition, and ushered in an era of do-it-yourself Neopaganism explicitly allied with second wave feminism and progressive political causes generally. Traditional Wiccans grumbled, tried to move with the times, or withdrew into a subculture of their own; meanwhile books teaching freshly minted Neopagan systems poured out of publishers, new shops opened their doors to sell books, herbs, and trinkets to the burgeoning Neopagan market, and Neopagan festivals sprang up in various corners of North America to give participants in the Neopagan scene chances to worship and party together.
The attitude of popular Neopaganism toward malevolent magic and demonolatry in its first three decades or so was overwhelmingly hostile. In fact, the movement made a point of stressing the wholesome and benevolent nature of Neopaganism. One of the most popular bumper stickers you’d see on cars at Neopagan festivals back in the day featured a pentagram and the words WITCHES HEAL. Nor was this mere window dreessing. The Wiccan Rede—“an (if) it harm none, do what ye will”—was very generally accepted in the movement, and so was the law of Threefold Return, the belief that whatever you do, for good or ill, will be paid back thrice over.
It was a standard Neopagan talking point in those days that the equation of witchcraft with “black magic” and Satanism was pure Christian propaganda. Anyone who suggested in public that Neopagans worshiped Satan, or for that matter any of the other devils of Judeo-Christian lore, could count on receiving a patronizing lecture about how Satan was a figure in Christian mythology and Neopagans don’t worship him for the same reason Christians don’t worship Shiva or Thor. Anyone who suggested in public that malevolent magic or demonolatry were acceptable practices for Neopagans could pretty much count on being shunned.
These attitudes remained more or less standard until sometime after the beginning of the 21st century. Were there people practicing malevolent magic and demonolatry elsewhere in the world of magical alternative spirituality? You bet. On the one hand, there are longstanding folk traditions in various parts of the Western world, including the United States, that include malevolent magic; on the other hand, a handful of groups that were more or less explicitly Satanist did what Satanists generally do. From the 1980s on, you also had chaos magic, which offered a simplified form of magical practice stripped of anything that would offend a diehard materialist, and some proponents of chaos magic made something of a fetish of insisting that gods and devils alike weren’t real beings, just symbolic images that could be manipulated at will by the chaos mage. (I’ll let you guess which of these “symbolic images” proved unexpectedly helpful when, as happened tolerably often, chaos mages engaged in morally grubby workings.)
As I recall, it was in the middle of the 21st century’s first decade that a handful of figures on the fringes of Neopaganism started insisting that malevolent magic was just fine, thank you very much. They got a lot of pushback at first, and not unreasonably, but with each year that passed thereafter the advocates of hexing and cursing were more numerous and less restricted to the fringe. Quite often, too, the people who were most vocal in promoting and defending malign magic were those who were heavily involved in political causes on the far left.
The turning point came in 2016, and no, it wasn’t the election of Donald Trump that did it. In June of that year, a California judge gave convicted rapist Brock Turner a slap-on-the-wrist sentence. In response, several Neopagan leaders called for the entire Neopagan community to curse Turner, his father, and the judge. Other Neopagan leaders, to their credit, rejected this attempt to drum up a magical lynch mob, and suggested workings to bring justice to Turner and healing to his victim. The lynch mob rejected this proposal heatedly—for them, mere justice was inadequate and only malevolent magic would do. For a while, quite a few of the most active Neopagan forums were full of debates pro and con; for that matter, while I’m not a Neopagan by any measure, I ran a post on The Well of Galabes critiquing the proposed hex on the basis of traditional occult philosophy.
When Trump won the 2016 election, though, it became all too clear that a very nasty genie had gotten out of the bottle. Within months, many thousands of people on the leftward end of the US political spectrum—many of them with little or no previous involvement in magic or alternative spirituality—got involved in malicious magic aimed at the Trump administration. The situation Dreher describes in his essay followed promptly.
There are various ways to understand this shift, but one that seems particularly useful to me comes not from occult lore but from an equally esoteric field of study, the sociology of deviance. Scholars in this subdiscipline have spent many years studying the way that groups on the fringes of society deal with their outcast status. They’ve also watched what happens when a formerly unacceptable set of ideas or behaviors wins widespread acceptance, and conversely what happens when a formerly acceptable set of ideas or behaviors gets consigned to the fringes.
Gay male culture in 20th and early 21st century America makes a fine example. Back in the days when same-sex relationships were prohibited by law and savagely condemned by public opinion, gay men created a typical fringe subculture with habits guaranteed to set its members apart from the rest of society. Clothing styles, “camp” mannerisms, and a galaxy of other customs raised barriers between the gay male community and the rest of America. That’s what fringe groups do: they define themselves against the mainstream by embracing what the mainstream detests.
Now consider what happened when gay men in America figured out how to use civil rights legislation and effective PR to change their cultural status from outcast to acceptable. As legal and social barriers dissolved, so did the barriers raised from within the gay male community. Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigeig is the poster child for the result: clean-cut, wholesome, happily married, a church-going Christian—you’ll have to look long and hard to find anybody who broadcasts more signals of mainstream acceptability.
Look at the history of popular Neopaganism through the lens provided by the sociology of deviance and what’s visible is a failed attempt to do the same thing. The books by Adler and Starhawk cited earlier spearheaded a movement that attempted to make a particular kind of magical spirituality acceptable to the mainstream, and that movement succeeded up to a point. For a while there, many Neopagan spokespeople went out of their way to look clean-cut and professional, and Neopagan leaders talked in glowing terms of a future in which Neopagan denominations would have paid professional clergy, buildings set aside for religious use, and all the other perks of a socially acceptable religious body.
Why that failed is a question for another day. The point I’d like to make is that it did fail. Most measures of the movement’s size and influence peaked between 2005 and 2010 and began to slide from there: book sales declined, Pagan shops went out of business in droves, attendance at festivals slid, and so forth. In perfect synch, Neopagan leaders who encouraged other Neopagans to make themselves acceptable to mainstream culture started getting serious pushback, and the first people started insisting publicly that malevolent magic and demonolatry were not merely acceptable but essential parts of Neopagan spirituality. In other words, the Neopagan scene began preparing itself for a future as a stigmatized fringe group.
And the trend that has Ron Dreher worried, the spread of this form of self-stigmatizing Neopaganism across the leftward end of American politics? I’d like to suggest that it’s another expression of the same process we’ve been discussing—that the radical left in America is also preparing itself for a future as a stigmatized fringe group.
Look at the behavior of the far left over the last decade or so with the sociology of deviance in mind, and the signs are clear. Time and again during that period, and increasingly since 2016, the radical left has embraced ideas and behaviors that alienate potential supporters from outside its own circles. The insistence among social justice activists that gay white men belong to the enemy camp because they don’t have enough “axes of oppression” is a case in point. The gay white male community did the bulk of the heavy lifting in the fight for equal rights for same-sex couples, and driving gay white men into the arms of the populist right is an astoundingly stupid tactic if the radical left hopes to maintain its current position of relative privilege. If the movement has already accepted a future as a stigmatized fringe group, though, it’s a sensible move, since excluding a group that’s well integrated with the mainstream is essential if you’re going to define yourself in opposition to the mainstream.
If you want a good measure of the cultural shift that’s setting in just now, compare the changes on the radical left to those on the populist right. Those of my readers who know their way around the alt-right will recall how that movement in the days before Trump’s victory went out of its way to stigmatize itself, brandishing Nazi symbolism and other socially unacceptable shibboleths to raise the usual barriers around itself. Now? Surf over to r/The_Donald or some other large forum of the populist Right, and it’s gone smiling, wholesome, and patriotic. People post baby pictures there, and organize groups to attend the funerals of veterans who have no living family.
The picture above, in fact, came from another populist-right subreddit, r/HottiesforTrump, and it’s a fairly good representation of the way the populist right is rebranding itself now that it’s coming in from the fringes. This picture came from the news media, and it’s a fairly good representation of the way that the radical left is rebranding itself as it heads in the other direction. You tell me which of these has the makings of the new mainstream.
That change has massive implications, to be sure, stretching from politics through culture to the realm of the spirit, and I expect to spend several future posts tracing the tectonic shifts that will follow. Just at the moment, though, it seems to me that the spiritual aspect deserves the attention Rod Dreher has given to it. He’s quite correct to point out that if you don’t accept the ideology of modern materialism, the choices being made by people who embrace malevolent magic and demonolatry are anything but value-free. Partly this is a function of the laws that govern the spiritual realm—and yes, unpopular as this concept is in some circles, there are such laws and they don’t care whether you believe in them or not. The traditions I study and teach differ in important respects from the ones that Dreher follows, but when it comes to the ethics of spiritual practice, he might be startled to learn how much common ground there is.
Still, there’s another dimension I’m not sure the casters of curses and invokers of demons have gotten around to noticing. Read the records of witchcraft persecutions through the centuries, and you’ll find that in a great many cases, what triggered the violence was the conviction, on the part of ordinary people, that one or more of their neighbors was using malign magic to harm them or those they loved. If the Neopagans who favor hexing and cursing want to see those same attitudes revived, they’re going about it the right way. It would be a bitter irony indeed if a religious movement that built so much of its early identity around talk about the burning times were to finish its historical trajectory at some close equivalent of the stake.