Before the takeover of Christianity, Mediterranean and European paganism was a national and community affair. The current neopagan revival is of necessity a movement from the margins and as such has struggled throughout its existence with how to relate to the outside world.
The truth is, we are in a unique position as a minority religion made up largely of white people. To an extent, our questions about how public we want to be are questions of how much discrimination we are willing to face. It’s a choice not afforded to a lot of minority religions made up of people whose race immediately marks them out for discrimination. That doesn’t make our choice to be open or private about our religion any more right or wrong, but I would caution white people who are witches and pagans to be more conscious of our language around these choices. We should tread lightly, and be slow to claim persecution.
When we choose to go public about our religion and spirituality, we are making a decision about the impact we (as individuals and as a community), would like to have in a world that long ago decided we have no power.
What do we want to accomplish?
How do we want the world to see us?
Are we different from the rest of the world, or do we share their essential values?
These are the questions which each witch and pagan must ask themselves, and which each will answer according to their own values and political commitments.
For myself, I believe that, although we can be cautiously public, we should never seek to change who we are in order to become more accepted. We are by nature countercultural and should remain so. And there is plenty of information which should be available only to people who seek it out (easier said than done in the information age; fortunately the true secrets of witchcraft are in the practicing of it, not in the books).
This sounds simple enough, but even in revealing our existence, we risk misunderstanding (at the very least). And because of this risk, we have to weigh carefully what will be revealed. How to tell the truth, but not too much. How to tell the truth in such a way that the necessary omission does not turn it into untruth? And how to include just enough depth that we will be taken seriously?
We can each only tell our own truth – for ourselves or our traditions. The fragmented nature of our spirituality/religion/craft means we cannot present an authentically united face to the public. What one witch asserts as true, another may call false, off-base, or merely shallow. Even if two witches agree on how public we should be, they’ll be unlikely to agree on what should be told, or how. And what one generation of witches may grow wary of after being burned (speaking to journalists, appearing in documentaries), another generation is still likely to learn about the hard way.
If we seek to be understood, do we try to be understood by emphasizing what we hold in common with the outside world, or do we seek to be understood on our own terms? As you may have guessed, I’d prefer the latter (if I care to be understood at all – mostly I’d personally like to be left alone about it by the unsympathetic at least). But understanding requires some sort of common ground, and unless we are speaking with a close friend, partner, or family member who is willing to meet us on our own terms, it is we who must find that commonality. This is why a lot of witchy public relations turn to platitudes like “Spells are prayers with props,” or “Witches are just powerful women,” or “Real witches don’t do any harm.” By seeking to be understood, we find that we either abdicate our uniqueness, or we quickly become mired in untruth. The fierce struggle to be understood which is so painful for any human becomes even more so when our path is so far outside the norm.
Ultimately, I think it is more important to practice our craft well and to be available to seekers than to mount publicity campaigns. At the same time, I acknowledge that we have a responsibility to make the world more safe for members of minority religions, given that we are one of them. I think this can be accomplished better by cultivating freedom for everyone and promoting a culture of communication and respect, than by publicizing the tenets of Wicca or mounting anti-witch-stereotype campaigns against people having fun at Halloween. Saint Francis comes to mind: may we seek not so much to be understood as to understand, and I would add, when we offer respect and understanding to others, we can hope they will reciprocate.
The caveat, of course, is much the same as it is for coming out as queer. You need not open up when it is unsafe to do so. You need not be equally open about your craft to all people or in all situations. Sometimes the best you can do is live your life well so that if people who you do not share your beliefs with do discover that you’re a witch, they can trust that that’s a good thing.
And, by the way, some people, like certain white nationalist heathen sects, do not deserve respect precisely because we do understand their true aims. We can throw hate groups out of our community with a full-throated denunciation – and indeed we must. We do not save ourselves by protecting them just because they claim pagan beliefs. Whatever it does to our public image, absolute repudiation of neo-Nazis who claim paganism is vital to our future as a community.
It’s unlikely, knowing us, that witches and pagans will ever be mainstream. But as we reclaim our power we must, with discernment of the proper times and the proper ways, tell the truth. And we must at all times remain true to what we know to be right – which includes religious freedom and liberation for all. There is no easy answer to the question of publicity, but if we proceed with caution, sensitivity, and integrity, we are likely to make wise choices.