Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. –Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr
All this has happened before. All this will happen again. –“The Book of Pythia”
“Why Millennials are ditching religion for witchcraft and astrology” was the headline of a recent article at MarketWatch. Readers are introduced to the owner of a “metaphysical boutique” in Brooklyn who says that “she has seen a major uptick in interest in the occult in the past five years, especially among New Yorkers in their 20s.”
“‘Whether it be spell-casting, tarot, astrology, meditation and trance, or herbalism, these traditions offer tangible ways for people to enact change in their lives,’” says boutique owner Melissa Jayne. “‘For a generation that grew up in a world of big industry, environmental destruction, large and oppressive governments, and toxic social structures, all of which seem too big to change, this can be incredibly attractive.’”
This piece at Medium is even more enthusiastic. It calls witchcraft “the perfect religion for liberal millennials,” and adds that “witches are everywhere.” In fact, “we are in the midst of a beautiful, occult, witch renaissance.”
For those seeking to ditch religion, your options aren’t limited to a real-life “Charmed” reboot. Astrology is apparently big among the same the demographic. How big? More than half of young adults in the U.S. believe astrology is a science, compared to less than 8 percent of the Chinese public.
There’s even, as the saying goes, an app for that: Co–Star. Demand for what it has to offer is so high that “Co–Star’s servers were so overwhelmed by demand after it launched on October 12 that the app crashed three times in its first week.”
The MarketWatch story got a lot of attention, probably because it combined the words “millennial” and “witchcraft.” But there’s nothing new here. If we’re in the midst of a “witch renaissance,” we’ve been there for some time.
Around the time that the aforementioned “Charmed” first aired, I wrote about the increased interest in paganism. You could buy books with titles like “Rocking the Goddess: Campus Wicca for the Student Practitioner,” and, of course, “Paganism for Dummies.”
You were far likelier to see a practitioner of paganism or Wicca depicted in popular culture than you were to see a Christian, Jew or Muslim—at least, depicted in a positive light. On college campuses across the country, college chapels, most of which dated to a time when the school had some real or at least nominal connection to a Christian denomination, had to adapt to contemporary spiritual trends.
For example, at Syracuse, the university’s Pagan Society lit candles in Hendricks Chapel, the same one used by Jewish, Christian and Muslim student groups. They still do. At the same time, interested students were able to sign up for a class on witchcraft and magic. They still could until quite recently.
At the time, the Dean of Hendricks Chapel said, “There is a cultural shift with college students identifying themselves less as religious and more as spiritual.”
As Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr would put it (if he were still alive and spoke English), the more things change, the more they stay the same. There is nothing new here, and making it about millennials doesn’t make it so.
That’s because the reason for the attraction to paganism and other “spiritual” practices is still the same. Calling yourself “spiritual,” as opposed to “religious,” at least in the conventional sense, is perfectly attuned to the zeitgeist. “Religion” comes from the Latin word ligare, which means “to bind.” And being bound, i.e., limited in any way, runs counter to our cultural obsession with personal autonomy and self-expression.
Calling ourselves “spiritual” is a way of rejecting secularism and scientism, which are personally unsustainable, without encumbering our freedom. Furthermore, calling ourselves “spiritual” helps us to feel good about ourselves. It provides a sense of connection to a larger reality while leaving us unencumbered by any considerations of our personal failings, or what we owe each other apart from a vague benevolence.
Completing the package is that paganism allows us to feel “authentic,” and we love feeling authentic. If all you knew about religion was what you saw on the Discovery Channel, NAT Geo, and other “educational” programming, you could reasonably infer that shamanism―the invocation of animal and other spirits―and worship of “the Goddess” were humanity’s spiritual “default settings.”
You would come away with the sense that paganism is somehow “natural,” and that monotheism—especially Christianity, with its “rigid” moral code and guilt-inducing ideas about sin and evil—is an interloper.
If that’s true, we should all thank God for the interloper. This interloper made possible the world that we in the West take for granted. Take, for instance, the American emphasis on the individual. It’s directly traceable to Martin Luther and Saint Augustine of Hippo. The rule of law? It was Christianity that replaced the often ruthless and primitive legal systems that Europe inherited from paganism, with a system based on justice.
It was Christianity, art critic Bryan Appleyard tells us, that taught the West how to think and create. The same is also true of science and politics. Nearly everything that is truly humane about the world we inhabit is the product of the synthesis between biblical religion and the best of the Greco-Roman tradition we call Western civilization.
Then there’s paganism’s dark side. Places like Lindow in England and Tollund in Denmark, where archeologists have found perfectly preserved victims of human sacrifice, give us a glimpse of paganism-as-actually-practiced as opposed to paganism-as-imagined.
I doubt that human sacrifice kits are on sale at your local “metaphysical boutique.”
There’s nothing new here. The fascination with witchcraft, astrology, and well, just about anything not labeled “Christianity” is ultimately a search for an alternative to biblical faith―one without the moral code we find so limiting and objectionable. It’s certainly not about changing our lives in any way that benefits anyone but ourselves.
Truly, there’s nothing new here.
Image courtesy of VeraPetruk at iStock by Getty Images. Part of this article was adapted from an article that originally ran at Boundless.
Roberto Rivera is senior fellow at the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview. For nearly 20 years he has been chief writer for the BreakPoint Radio commentary program. His “Internally Displaced Person” is a mostly regular column at BreakPoint.org. His writings have appeared in Touchstone, First Things, and Sojourners. He lives with his son in Alexandria, Virginia.