When The Religious Left Is Occult
Back in the day, the Reverend Pat Robertson kerfuffed the nation by making the following claim about feminism:
[I]t is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.
Today, the religion writer Tara Isabella Burton — an Oxford PhD whom I met at Walker Percy Weekend — published a fascinating piece about the rise of occultism among Millennial progressives, that ends with this killer graf:
Back in 1992, Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson warned of the dangers of feminism, predicting that it would induce “women to leave their husbands. . . .practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.” Many of today’s witches would happily agree.
Her reported piece actually justifies this surprising conclusion. She didn’t write it from a particular political point of view, let me be clear. She told me at the festival that this piece was coming. She said that she had spent a lot of time reporting it by hanging out with people in that world, and asking them what drew them to the occult, and why they believe that occult belief and practice can and should be fused with political commitment. I swear, reading this is like encountering the photonegative of the Religious Right. Excerpts:
For an increasing number of left-leaning millennials—more and more of whom do not belong to any organized religion—occult spirituality isn’t just a form of personal practice, self-care with more sage. Rather, it’s a metaphysical canvas for the American culture wars in the post-Trump era: pitting the self-identified Davids of seemingly secular progressivism against the Goliath of nationalist evangelical Christianity.
There’s the coven of Brooklyn witches who publicly hexed then-Supreme Court candidate Brett Kavanaugh to the acclamation of the thousands-strong “Magic Resistance”—anti-Trump witches (among them: pop singer Lana del Rey) who used at-home folk magic to “bind” the president in the months following his inauguration. There are organizations like The Satanic Temple —newly featured in Penny Lane’s 2019 documentary Hail Satan—a “nontheistic religion” and activist group that uses its religious status to demand for its black-robe-clad members the same protections afforded to Christians in the hopes of highlighting the ridiculousness of faith-based exceptions (Satanic prayer in schools, say). There are dozens of Trump-era how-to spellbooks that blend folk magic with activist practice: the 2018 anthology The New Arcadia: A Witch’s Handbook to MagicalResistance; Michael Hughes’s 2018 Magic for the Resistance: Rituals and Spells for Change; David Salisbury’s 2019 Witchcraft Activism: A Toolkit for Magical Resistance (Includes Spells for Social Justice, Civil Rights, the Environment, and More); and Sarah Lyons’s forthcoming Revolutionary Witchcraft: A Guide to Magical Activism. There are hundreds of thousands of users of witch-popular blogging platforms like Tumblr and Instagram, which at the moment boasts 8.5 million photographs hashtagged “#witch.”
As an aesthetic, as a spiritual practice, and as a communal ideology, contemporary millennial “witch culture” defines itself as the cosmic counterbalance to Trumpian evangelicalism. It’s at once progressive and transgressive, using the language of the chaotic, the spiritually dangerous, and (at times) the diabolical to chip at the edifices of what it sees as a white, patriarchal Christianity that has become a de facto state religion.
While New Age practitioners of the 1960s onward often characterized their practice as unfailingly benign—the karmic “Rule of Three,” which predicted that any negative energy sent into the universe would reverberate threefold on a practitioner, was ubiquitous in neo-pagan circles—contemporary witch feminism rebrands occult darkness as a legitimate, even necessary response to a structural oppression. In one Brooklyn zine, author and non-binary witch Dakota Bracciale—co-owner of Catland Books, the occult store behind the Kavanaugh hexing—celebrates the potential of traditional “dark magic” and outright devil-worship as a levying force for social justice.
“There have been too many self-elected spokespersons for all of witchcraft,” Bracciale writes, “seeking to pander to the masses and desperately conform to larger mainstream religious tenets in order to curry legitimacy. Witchcraft has largely, if not exclusively, been a tool of resilience and resistance to oppressive power structures, not a plaything for bored, affluent fools. So if one must ride into battle under the banner of the Devil himself to do so then I say so be it. The reality is that you can be a witch and worship the devil and have sex with demons and cavort through the night stealing children and burning churches. One should really have goals.” As with the denizens of The Satanic Temple, Bracciale uses the imagery of Satanism as a direct attack on what he perceives as Christian hegemony. So too Jex Blackmore, a self-proclaimed Satanic feminist (and former national spokesperson for the Satanic Temple) who appeared in the Hail Satan? documentary performing a Satanic ritual involving half-naked worshippers and pigs’ heads on spikes, announcing: “We are going to disrupt, distort, destroy. . . .We are going to storm press conferences, kidnap an executive, release snakes in the governor’s mansion, execute the president.”
You have to read the whole thing. This is deeply informed religion journalism, not sensationalism. It’s true that the topic itself is sensational, but after spending a while talking to Tara about this story, and her experiences as a journalist and an observer of that world, I’m convinced that this is a serious phenomenon that deserves attention. If you don’t believe me, read the piece, and see how she traces its influence through popular culture. Tara has a book coming out next year about religion in a “godless” world. Check out her website here.
Here’s what I’ve been thinking since our conversation about this piece, and since reading it earlier today: we should take this as seriously as its practitioners do.
Under liberalism, many of us have a habit of ironically distancing ourselves from taking religion — mainstream religion, or outsider religion — seriously. For example, we think of religious rites as an expression of how the practitioner feels about this or that. Secular unbelievers, obviously, don’t think that there is anything real happening with satanic rites, spell-casting, and suchlike. It is nothing more than a form of theater. They also regard Christian rituals in the same way.
If materialism is an accurate and complete account of reality, then they’re right: it’s nothing more than emotive pageantry. Still, if that’s all it is, then we should at least take seriously the fact that there are people who wish to express in ritual a desire to “disrupt, distort [and] destroy.” In writing about the believers within these circles, Tara told me that it’s not a joke or a game to them; they really do believe that what they’re doing has an effect, just as much as a Christian faith healer or exorcist does.
Holden Matthews, the young white man charged with burning down three black churches this year in south Louisiana, was reportedly deeply involved with the black metal scene, a genre of rock that celebrates satanic themes, sometimes attracts white supremacists, and whose followers have been linked to church burnings elsewhere. Maybe there’s nothing to it but expressive pageantry, but then again, Mohammed Atta and his crew hijacked airliners and flew them into buildings for religious and political reasons. My point is simply that religion is not always something nice and respectable and life-affirming. All religion might be false, but most of us would rather live next door to Ned Flanders than Holden Matthews.
But what if materialism’s account of reality is untrue? What if there really is something actual going on with religion? That is, what if people who perform religious rites — Catholics, Taoists, witches, everyone — are not simply expressing how they feel, but truly making contact with the numinous, and engaging its power?
I believe that’s what’s happening in most religious rites. Do I believe that all people who participate in them are actually contacting the god or gods they claim to be contacting? No, of course not. I am an Orthodox Christian, not a pantheist. I believe in the cosmos as described in the Bible. I believe in the Holy Trinity, in saints and angels — and I believe that the devil exists, and so do demons. I’ve seen enough with my own eyes, and heard enough testimony from those with more direct experience of malevolent spirits, to be completely assured that this world exists.
Within the Christian world, you can find a lot of diversity of opinion about the spiritual world and its mysteries. Some strict Christians would say that anyone who doesn’t pray explicitly to Jesus Christ is therefore a servant of the Evil One. Others have more complex views. It’s the same in other religions, of course. I don’t want to go into how to parse these things out. That’s an interesting topic, but beside the point I want to make here.
Which is this: what Burton writes about is not something to laugh about — though the way woke capitalism is exploiting the search for divinity via occultism is pretty eye-rolling –n is it something to affirm in that broad-minded, nitwit way in which we cheerfully Celebrate Diversity.™ The Religious Left is not merely about Unitarian Universalists and Social Justice Catholics. It includes an increasing number of people who actually hate Christianity, and wish to harm it. And, as Burton wittily observes, almost three decades after the TV evangelist made his controversial observation, Pat Robertson’s fundraising fever dream has come true.
What do we do with that?
What do you do with that if you are a materialist?
What do you do with it if you’re a liberal Christian, Jew, or Muslim? Does your shared political commitment mean you overlook the occultism? Or what?
What if you’re a conservative Abrahamic theist? How do you respond?
What if you’re someone from an established non-Abrahamic tradition? Is there a line to be drawn between, say, Hinduism and Buddhism on one side, and satanism on the other?
Can a clear and meaningful line be drawn between worshipers in various occult traditions. Wiccans, for example, are not satanists — but would Wiccans reject holding rituals with satanists, or teaming with them for political action? If so, on what grounds? I’m genuinely asking.
The one response that I reject flatly as nonsense is to laugh it off as theater. For one thing, it’s disrespectful to those who take it seriously, just as disrespectful as it would be to dismiss someone who worships in synagogue or masjid or church as nothing more than an actor or a member of the audience. Laughing the mysteries of religion off as theater is what we say when we can’t figure out what to think, and we just want to dismiss the numinous. But the numinous keeps showing up. Read this 2014 essay by Rice University religion scholar Jeffrey Kripal, who talks about how we have a foolish habit of dismissing anything that contradicts the materialist framework out of hand.
Ask yourself, if only as a thought experiment: if the people in Tara Isabella Burton’s report are in touch with actual dark spiritual forces, and trying to invoke or otherwise activate them to affect people and events in the material world, what does that mean? Can your settled pieties, secular and otherwise, afford to take them seriously? is what I’m asking.
Let’s have an interesting, respectful conversation about this, shall we? If you just want to rant, don’t bother, because I’m not going to approve it. Also, let me point out that my own views are not the same views as Tara Isabella Burton. Her piece is reported neutrally, as a work of religion journalism; you should read it before commenting.
UPDATE: Gang, be serious in your comments.