Is Witchcraft a Religion?

For many witches, spellwork is part of spiritual practice. Image by Serg Myshkovsky/Vetta/Gett Images

One topic that comes up for frequent and spirited debate in the Pagan community is that of whether or not witchcraft itself is a religion. Let’s start by clarifying exactly what it is we’re discussing. For purposes of this conversation, keep in mind that Wicca, Paganism and witchcraft are three different words with three different meanings

We can all agree that Wicca is a religion, and that not all witches are Wiccan – no one in the Pagan community disputes these things.

Also, we can generally agree that Paganism, while an umbrella term, is a word that encompasses a variety of religious systems. So what about witchcraft? Is that a religion, or is it something else?

Like so many other questions asked in modern Paganism, the answer is going to vary, depending on whose opinion you’re getting.

One of the biggest issues of this discussion is that people have varying definitions of what the word religion actually means. For many, particularly those who come to Paganism from a Christian background, religion often implies organized, rigid and structured hierarchy, rather than emphasis on the spiritual validity of finding one’s own path. However, if we look at the etymology of the word religion, it comes to us from the Latin religare, which means to bind. This later evolved into religio, which is to honor and hold in reverence.

For some people, witchcraft is indeed a religious practice – it’s the use of magic and ritual within a spiritual context, a practice that brings us closer to the gods of whatever traditions we may happen to follow.

Sorscha is a witch who lives in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. She says, “I commune with nature and the gods on a spiritual level, and I work magic in a way that allows me to do that effectively. Every prayer to the gods, every spell I cast, it’s all part of my spiritual practice. For me, witchcraft and religion are one and the same – I wouldn’t be able to reconcile having one without the other.”

On the other hand, there are some people who see the practice of witchcraft as more of a skill set than anything else. It’s one more tool in the arsenal, and while it’s sometimes incorporated into religious practice, it can also be applied on a non-spiritual level. Tadgh is an eclectic witch who lives in New York City. He says, “I’ve got my relationship with my gods, which is my religion, and I’ve got my magical practice, which is what I work with on a daily basis. I cast spells to keep my bike from getting stolen and to keep the water running in my apartment. There’s nothing religious or spiritual about those things to me. It’s practical magic, but it’s hardly religious in purpose. I’m pretty sure the gods don’t care if someone takes my bike out of the hallway while I’m asleep.”

For many modern practitioners, magic and spellwork are separate from interaction with the gods and the Divine. In other words, while witchcraft can both include and be adapted to religious and spiritual practice, that doesn’t necessarily make it a religion in and of itself.

Many people find a way to combine their practice with their beliefs, and still describe them as separate components. The late Margot Adler, NPR journalist and author of the groundbreaking Drawing Down the Moon, often told people she was a witch who “followed a nature religion.”

The question of whether the practice of witchcraft is a religion has come up occasionally within the United States military. While the US Army has a handbook for chaplains that includes a mention of witchcraft, it is listed as simply an alternative term for Wicca, implying that they are one and the same.

And, as if things weren’t already complicated enough, there are a number of books and websites that refer to witchcraft as “The Old Religion.” Folklorist and author Charles Leland refers to the “religion of witchcraft” in Italy, in his book Aradia, Gospel of the Witches.

So, what does this mean? In a nutshell, it means that if you want to consider your practice of witchcraft as a religion, you can certainly do so. It also means that if you see your practice of witchcraft as simply a skill set and not a religion, then that’s acceptable too.

This is a question that the Pagan community will probably never agree upon an answer to, so find the way to describe your beliefs and practices that works best for you personally.