Monday, November 19, 2018

A Crisis of Faith: Coming to Terms with the Toxicity of Paganism and Witchcraft (Updated)

I've been sitting on this entry for some months, fighting back and forth as to whether I should post it.  It's sure to earn me some ire but I think it's also important to show that, no matter how far involved you are in your own Craft, these feelings surface.  Ignoring them isn't an option.  They have to be brought into the light, dealt with and, ultimately, decided upon.

Since my leaving the circle and the community, I’ve been struggling with a crisis of faith. I thought, for the longest time, that it was because I lost factors I considered essential to my spirituality: Volunteering, organizing, and teaching. For me, a religion is only worth undertaking if you can give a piece of yourself to it.  But I've come to realize that it's more than that, deeper rooted than that.  That my feelings involving a lack of contribution are merely a symptom of my crisis of faith and not the cause.

I find that, in the past few years, I have become increasingly disillusioned with paganism and witchcraft as a whole. At its core, it is based on a bunch of made-up egocentric bullshit from misogynistic men with a taste for sex and -isms. Of course, this is a generalization. Yes, there are pieces of truth and authenticity, but those pieces are so interwoven with the shit that is the abusive, appropriative, racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic nature of the neopagan community and its extensive history. No matter how much I separate myself from the community, how much I personalize my solitary practice, I have to live with the fact that these things are not only connected at the root but synonymous with the community as it is currently.  And I don't know if I can.

Yes, some of this is based on recent posts re: Sarah Anne Lawless and her issues with modern Neopaganism.  You can read some of them here but, be forewarned: They are triggering.  I don't feel like getting into the argument of whether her history and analysis is sound.  I find that those who criticize her history are nitpicking terminology while missing the bigger picture: Pagan and witchcraft practices have historically set the precedence for abuse.  There's a reason it festers within the community - and it isn't a new concept.  It's all good and well if you don't agree with her historical analysis, but then dig yourself and figure out where it started.  Because it started long ago, well before Sarah, or you, or I entered the community.

But that's just a portion of it.  Lawless's article was the feather on top of a lot of weight I have been holding for some years.

I don’t talk about it much but, in my college years, I really didn’t have time to practice. I was working three jobs, getting my degree, and building a career. The last time I had practiced, even within the confines of my childhood bedroom at midnight with the hopes that no one discovered me, had been years behind me. I didn’t identify as a witch anymore. I identified at best as agnostic but more likely verging on atheism. After I quit two of those three jobs and graduated, I found myself with more time on my hands. Witchcraft was a familiar friend to fill the void. It also coincided with the rock-bottom of the Great Recession, the loss of both of our jobs and our apartment, and the start of a long period of floundering for me. While I’m sure the connection isn’t necessarily hand-in-hand, it’s hard to separate the two.

Even when I reentered witchcraft, I held on to pieces of my agnosticism/atheism. I’m nontheistic and logical to a fault within my craft, often associating scientific uses with correspondences more than the mythos behind the item. And the more I studied, the more I gripped those pieces with a fierce strangulation.

The more I descended into the pagan community, the more I spiraled on my own. The more I spiraled, the more I was susceptible to the kinds of power play and abuse that’s rampant within the community, from people showing up to my house party who were not invited and should have never had my address, putting my family's safety at stake, to the piggybacking of racism within the community to out a member everyone had personal issues with rather than tackling the actual issue of racism (and other isms) within the community itself. I have been roped into appropriative rituals without my consent in front of hundreds of people and I have been antagonized by members asking if I felt "safe" in a way that intentionally did not make me feel safe.  Those are just a select small number of the experiences I have had within my own local community. And yes, sexual abuse and coercion also play a large role. I am one of the lucky ones to say that I’ve only ever been cornered once in a sexual nature and my husband rescued me, but again - I am lucky. I know so many who weren’t. I also so desperately wanted to believe that my coven was immune to it when it wasn’t. While the relationships were stated as mutual, when one coven member is dating literally half of the coven, we're facing the same relationship power dynamics that we witness within the greater community. I wouldn't say it's abuse per se, but it is a concerning issue that I should have addressed much sooner.  I wish I hadn’t let it slip under my nose as “consenting adults." And that makes me, in a word, compliant in all of that. For that, I truly apologize.

I have often kept quiet in the past about issues I have faced in the community because multiple members have made it clear that I "intentionally play the victim," so I simply don't raise my voice unless the issue is happening to a group rather than just me. In reality, those words are yet another power play, a way to control those who are experiencing abuse and need to speak up.

No, my crisis of faith is based on the toxicity of paganism and witchcraft.  At its core, the practice is manipulative, abusive and misinformed.  We have worked hard over the greater part of a century to change that, to unbury the truths and find the real history.  However, it has been too little, too late.  The community itself is structured for power plays, abuse and petty drama - more than other communities I have been a part of in the past.  In fact, I've never witnessed such damaging behavior as I have within the greater community.  And the reality is that I cannot separate my practice from it.  It's ingrained in every part of it, from its core history to its current varying practices.  Perhaps I felt like I was doing something good with the coven by ensuring our Novice classes were wrapped in the truth, no matter how grating it could be.  Perhaps I felt like this blog was my way of remedying it.  I don't know.  What I do know is that I don't want to be "fixing" it anymore.

Coming out of the other side of this, it feels… unsettling. To use the metaphor I used with my therapist: I feel like paganism and the community lit a spark within me. What I didn’t realize is that it was lit from a massive house fire I was standing right in the middle of. It took me getting burned many times to finally make it out of the mess. I won’t go back inside and that fire isn’t going out any time soon. In fact, people keep tossing kindling on it. There are individuals with small buckets desperately trying to put it out but it’s not working because there’s just not enough. And, right now, right in this moment, I’m standing in the cold of the night watching the blaze, nursing my wounds and wondering how I even ended up here. I’m looking back at the roaring fire and I have to decide: Is this MY house?

And I don’t think I want it to be anymore.


Community leaders' "vaguebooking" response to my article:

These posts do not deny anything that I wrote about in my article. These posts make no mention of remedying the issue.  The appropriate response to concerns about rampant -isms and abuse within the community is to look inward - not to blame those who fell victim to it. Instead, they insist on perpetuating with the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality: "If you can't handle the fire, get out of the kitchen."  These posts normalize this kind of abusive behavior listed above and insist that I'm "playing the victim," as I knew full well they would (and as I mentioned in advance).  Admitting your community has problems would require you to admit that it is overtly flawed and require you to relinquish the power you so desperately cling to in order to fix them.  Instead, the community as a whole is only willing to admit there are issues upon personal vendetta - not for the actual issues that stand.

Also, "don't blame the hill just because you aren't capable of hiking up it" is the most ableist metaphor I've seen yet.  No one should have to climb (read: "deal" with -isms, abuse and safety issues) when there are other ways around this.  You're choosing to use the hill.  Stop using it.

Update two:

I wanted to copy and paste some responses I've gotten from this article.  The only ire I have drawn so far has been from the community leaders above.  Other members within the community I was once a part of and those outside of my area have a different story to tell, and I think their voices should also be heard.  I have removed the names but, if you want your quote to be attributed, let me know.  This is not a cherry-picking of comments.  This is every comment I have received other than what you see below and the two leaders above:

"This pretty much sums up my sentiment. I had one member of the Pagan community try to groom me. Naturally when I didn't couple with him but had sex with those outside the community my sexual morality was questioned. I had several more try to make me a pawn in their power plays, including essentially taking ownership of spiritual centers I would run in name only. Naturally I didn't go for the bait. I had some try to brainwash me into so-called positive living because it was easier than believing I was in an abusive situation and needed help. Then when I hit hard times some would try to exploit me. When I stood up to it those same people would trash my name, make up horrible stuff about me and my then partner to isolate me, then deny all my spiritual work I put forth. I too grow weary of this form of Paganism. And, no, it won't go away like you said. At best it can start to change when our generation takes over more. That would require the "elders" to step down, though, and that isn't happening anytime soon." - A local community member.

"I saw that and I knew they were responding to you. It's terrible that they can't recognize that there is a problem within the community....why chastise those who have been hurt by this? I hate the "pull yourself up by the bootstrap" definitely blames the victim." - A local community member.

"Nothing says, "pagan communities are not inherently toxic!" like vaguebooking, right?  I mean they're not being outright mean, just said enough to prove you right.  Both responses reek of ableism." - A local community member.

"Marietta, I wish you could hear the thunderous applause I would be giving you right now if I had read this in your company.
Western esotericism is poisoned at its core. Its roots are directly from racist, misogynist, wealthy white cis men who used their power for the direct purpose of sexual, racial, Jewish, and queer abuse. That is a fact. It just is.
Anyone who wants to practice it today as an ethically aware endeavor faces a tremendous uphill battle. I know of people who are trying to do that in a truthful and honest way, and best of luck to them. But for me, it’s always been too much, and it’s the reason I never got involved with paganism and my practice is almost entirely non-spiritual. It’s hard to see spirituality in something with such a dark history, and in many circles even a dark present, for me. Even just trying to go to a meetup group for magic users, I could see the toxic dynamics going on within 2 events. And so, I have always remained entirely solitary.
Partly, it is that it reminds me so much of so many other subcultural groups I’ve been in: punk kids, poly, kink, even some activist circles. They are all poisoned with this exact same disease. The people who tend to flock to them are often vulnerable and feel outcast, or in some unfortunate cases, really are outcast. And because of that, abusers flock to them as well, looking for young, vulnerable people to brainwash and take advantage of.
I learned many years ago to stay away from these groups, because as a young woman, I was a magnet for the predators that ran rampant, and everyone just looked the other way and did nothing, because to admit their community was abusive would mean they’d have to face the fact that they weren’t perfect. It’s been an extremely difficult thing to come to grips with, because the whole reason I used to seek these spaces is because I didn’t have any home in the mainstream. And to find out the communities for people like me were mostly poisoned with molesters, racists, and sometimes even fascists was horrifying.
And there’s an added element of danger when it happens in witchcraft and paganism specifically, because the very concept of the group is based upon things like spirituality and sometimes altered experiences – things designed to make you vulnerable. Not that vulnerability is inherently bad, but it’s certainly bad in the presence of wolves. The very nature of spirituality makes it something where you have to trust those around you in order to experience it safely.
And I’m so sad for you that you’ve had to go through this with your former coven. And I’m so impotently angry that your story of what happened sounds so fucking familiar to me and this shit never gets any better. No matter how woke everyone pretends to be, no matter how many token gestures they pay to cultural sensitivity or inclusion or community accountability, it never fucking changes, and I don’t know what to do about it.
I don’t know what the point of this was. I just wanted to let you know I hear you and I support you and you’re not the only one." 

"They spoke to it directly and yet completely obliviously. You clearly said you are often told you’re playing the victim and what do they do but repeat themselves. I find it more a hypersensitive soul to abuses and emotional manipulation, and we need people like that around to be aware and help us be aware."

"From the outside, I had the impression that "paganism" was very feminist, forward thinking, female centered and respectful. But it seems to have been poisoned at the very core by toxic masculinity and misogyny. Add to that the cultural appropriation (which the article makes a very convincing point as to why it's completely ridiculous in the first place and that the attempt to co-opt any outlier faith is laughable) and that seems like a fairly terrible mix. And unfortunately, it seems that poison also seems to have reached the circles you created, despite your efforts to make them as remote from this as possible.
So I understand much better now why this loss of faith. And if it's a loss of faith towards whether you want to still be a part of this, then that seems perfectly reasonable.
I will say this though, from what you posted recently you also seem to have lost a bit of faith in yourself. If that's the case, I hope you can crush that. Because the truth is it's neither your duty nor your burden to change things, especially if you don't seem to find sincere allies willing to fight this with you. You're a badass woman, a talented artist, someone that I sincerely admire for your capacity to take charge and the obvious monumental effort you put into every aspect of your life. You're amazing. Put that faith in yourself."

"…that was a strong and well-written essay about people’s abuses of each other within pagan/witch communities, and they… think people who don’t like getting abused and manipulated… should just skidaddle… as if abuse and manipulation are healthy and normal parts of magical/pagan communities?

"So, I’ve called myself pagan for a while for a lack of vocab, but I have distanced myself more and more from the image and presence of pagans as I have grown due to the unsavory (read: sexual and questionable) reputation the community has gained however, with the white supremacy rep that heathen has gotten, I’m not really there either. Odd and witchy is true, but not easy to define.
You have been and are such an inspiration. When you were the leader of a Coven, I had hope for covens.  It’s not you that’s wrong. I think that a lot of witches have found that there’s a ton of shit that we don’t have time for. You tried to do a lot of good. You DID a lot of good. It’s not on you if the shitty things your former [community] do snip and snipe about in your speaking truth to power are shitty. You are a wonderful gift to this world. Don’t let people who haven’t grown past shit drag you..."

"Why do they fucking care so much about what you're doing? Not involved with them anymore, yeah? Reeks of manipulation."

"Dear Marietta,
I see you.  I hear you.  This is me validating you.
As someone who has practiced their entire life, it sometimes feels like this house has become a tomb.  I get lost, even after 30 years.  I wonder if I have been traveling a fruitless path.  But then I remember why I am a witch:
My power.
I acknowledge the power inside of me.  The power that was given to me by ancestor after ancestor.  The power that was nurtured by my mother.  The power that wakes me every morning.  The power I utilize to continue to change the world…even when, at times, it seems as if I am climbing a 90 degree slope.
I hate that you have gone through this.  I hate that these people are making you feel unworthy of your power.
So don’t give it to them.  Fuck them.  And fuck what they have to say.
You are a goddamn titan on your own.  And no one can take from you what you know to be yours, to be true.
Take back what is rightfully yours."


  1. Thank you so much for sharing this story. ❤

  2. This was a heart wrenching article! I'm so disgusted with the reply which is pretty negative and even hostile!? I practice alone and always have, but I have attended picnics with others. I did not really click with them (for many reasons) and so I stay to myself. I think I'm more of a Unitarian Pagan/Agnostic.....that sounds like I'm pretty confused, doesn't it...ha! But at least when I attend the Unitarian Church, I'm with open minded people who practice all faiths and are deeply involved in social justice. They also tend to be really bright and loving folks. I guess, I just do my own thing, read books and stay solitary.

  3. Every time I think I'm ready to step out of solitary practice, this stuff rears its ugly head again and I slip right back into my quiet little house. I am so sorry that you're going through this. I do hope that you're not giving up on the blog, as I really love it. I believe that community can be a great thing, but I find that it is so easy to be corrupted.
    I myself am slowly dipping my toe into being more involved in my local community and I'm scared. I hope that you can heal and I hope that you find your space, wherever and with (or without) whomever it might be.

  4. Marietta,
    You are by absolutely no means alone in these feelings. There is a reason I keep to myself and refuse to practice with others. I show up occasionally at Pagan Pride, but I stick out like a sore thumb and recognize I do not belong within the community. I may practice witchcraft, but I'm a scientist at heart. I see the abuse, the power plays, the manipulation, the fantasy role playing, but that is not me or us. I tried for years, like yourself, to correct it, but I couldn't. The few of us who are trying are, like you said, not enough. It is going to take the entire community recognizing there is a problem, and I don't see that happening within our lifetime. The only thing we can do is keep on being ourselves, standing up for what is right, and getting the message out there. The relationships we have formed within our craft are still valuable and authentic. While science always trumps the fantasy, witchcraft gives us that sense of wonderful and control we desire. Some days I look at my crystals and think, "This is just a stupid rock. Why have I spent time and money on this crap?" And then I remember how much better I feel looking at it and holding it and I realize that so what if its all made up. It makes me feel better, and at the end of the day, that's all that matters. I know it makes you feel better too. It isn't a perfect system, and we can't make it perfect, but we can still live our best life in the thick of it all. I hope you find your peace and realize it isn't your job to fix everyone else and the pagan community. Take care of you; always.

  5. I've found in every type of group - religious or otherwise- there are always going to be some people who feel the need to exert power of some sort over the other members. That's their nature and it has nothing to do with the actual "rules" but it causes rifts within the group. In a setting where a person joins that group to feel a sense of belonging, a sense of community, it certainly can ruin the experience for them.

  6. "No matter how much I separate myself from the community, how much I personalize my solitary practice, I have to live with the fact that these things are not only connected at the root but synonymous with the community as it is currently."

    To go forward, maybe you should consider a more radical direction. Forget, at least for now, everything about 'paganism', 'witchyness' and all that. Go back to the core what's really important, keep your practices as simple as possible. Most likely you'll start to practice some form of shamanism, the Mother of all practices. Forget about other people for now, find some enlightment first for yourself. After some time, most likely you know much better how to go foreward on your spiritual path. And then you'll find other people more in tune with yourself. Forget about 'communities', it's better to have a deep connection with only one or two like-minded people who are truly open to your positive energies. Just my $0.02. Good luck! Rudy from the Netherlands.

  7. Dear Marietta,
    Thank you for speaking out!
    I'm so sorry you've had these kinds of experiences. You're a strong person, you know your heart, and I know you'll find your way again.
    I've always been solitary, and reading the stories that have come up recently confirms for me that I always will be.
    Best wishes

  8. I can back this up as well. Over 20 years ago, I was involved with someone that identified as pagan. He was massively abusive. The crap he did that were "rituals" were uncomfortable, grooming, and abusive. Later we hooked up with a coven. I think they may have been okay but if they saw his abuse of me, no one said anything. Part of why I didn't reach out to them is b/c he had me believing this was normal for pagnaism. Here I am, more than two decades later, trying to find my path, but doing so solitary (aside from occasionally reaching out online). That trauma will follow me forever, but it's sharpened my resolve. I'm a scientist now, academically speaking and work in a field similar to what I majored in. I can think more logically and more for myself now when I couldn't then. Hopefully, this time I'll find my way and it'll be beautiful this time because no one is hurting me and I'm not normalizing abuse in my head.

  9. Going on anonymous for my personal privacy and safety I hope that's ok. Honestly, I'm really glad people are speaking up finally. I will admit though, what truly dismays me is the fact I...actually called the community out on it's bullshit back in mid 2016 on my now deleted tumblr and wordpress. In the end, I was silenced because offended parties decided to paint me as the "abuser" with a "victim complex". It probably didn't help I was vageblogging about some pretty well respected community members who ultimately emotionally abused me. That didn't set right with people. Fuck them all honestly.

    I'm happy Sarah Anne Lawless is speaking up. BUT I hate to be the red herring in the fact that no one would say shit if it wasn't for the fact Sarah herself is highly loved and respected. I lurk. I'm seeing my abusers share her article in agreement and support. It pisses me off. This community is littered with hypocritical and egotistical fucks so why am I surprised?

    The sad thing is as much as I love the deities I've come to know and bond with... if I could turn back the clock and go back to the year of 2013... I would have NEVER gotten involved with paganism. The community has traumatized me emotionally to the point I have PTSD from it. Going anywhere near pagan spaces (online or off) will trigger me into a panic attack. And while I've genuinely tried to slowly get re-involved it's futile... a lot of people hate and dislike me because I spoke up and refused to stay silent. I think as this year of 2018 draws to a close I'm finally in a time of my life where I'm ready to say "yeah. I'm done." I'm walking away from the pagan community for GOOD. It's just a matter of rebuilding, healing, and making up for the time I could have spent being more productive...

    In regards to neo-paganism and the community as a whole: good bye and good riddance. I genuinely hope you rot.

    Thanks for speaking up. Your bravery is helping more people than you're being led to believe.

  10. Almost everyone can see the problems in a given system or situation, but those who create and execute the solution are valuable.

  11. With communities like this, where I don't personally know the people involved, it can be hard to know who actually cares when both "sides" claim they are in the right. But as soon as you brought up your issues with racism and transphobia, you struck me as genuine. It's usually the people who might not be actively hurt by these things but still acknowledge and care about the hurt it applies to others, those are the ones who ring true. Because I think that's why issues don't get addressed. People think "Well, it's not affecting ME! I'VE never experienced any -isms so therefore this is a loving community." and it totally brushes over and mutes the stories of marginalized peoples. Thank you for speaking boldly about this and for caring. I hope you've been somewhat lifted by the support coming your way and I hope you keep on keeping on!