Chesterton never said, “The first effect of not believing in God is to believe in anything,” but if the great writer and critic had lived in postmodern America, perhaps he would have. A prime reason might be the growth and mainstreaming of witchcraft and other forms of paganism.
While much has been said about the rise of the religiously unaffiliated (the “nones”), as if the nation were rushing headlong into a cold, rationalistic secularism, the truth is more complicated. Yes, the percentage of those who claim to be atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular is rising—jumping from 16.1 percent in 2007 to 22.8 in 2014. During this same time, the share of those related in some way to the Christian faith fell from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent.
But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find a surprising level of paganism just below the surface. In 2017 the Pew Research Center found that 40 percent of respondents believe in psychics, while another 40 percent believe that inanimate objects such as mountains and trees are filled with spiritual energy—textbook animism. The same survey found that 33 percent hold to reincarnation, 29 percent accept astrology, and 60 percent believe in at least one of these New Age ideas.
As part of the West’s latest embrace of animism, faith in the mystical power of crystals is also on the rise. “In 2017 crystals became a multibillion-dollar slice of the $4.2 [trillion] global wellness industry, with shamans using them to advise entrepreneurs on investment opportunities, and Gwyneth Paltrow selling them to encourage serenity and to ‘purify’ water,” writes Eva Wiseman in The Guardian. She says that this faith is an “understandable choice, it could be argued, in a time when people report feeling ever more critical of experts and ‘facts,’ keen for a release from technology, disconnected from traditional systems of care and desperate for something shiny that might save them.”
Of course, these ideas aren’t “new” at all but are old spiritual counterfeits dressed up for the 21st century—just like the “working witches of Los Angeles.” Writing for the Los Angeles Times, Deborah Netburn says this growing do-it-yourself cohort is stirring a toxic recipe of marketing savvy, technology, and pop psychology into an alluring and lucrative brew.
“There’s no official list of job duties for witches,” Netburn writes, “no state licensing board that notes educational or training requirements (which means clients proceed at their own risk). Services run the gamut, from herbal workshops to love spells to communing with spirit guides; some witches charge up to $200 an hour for their time.”
One of the women she interviewed, Amanda Yates Garcia, who claims to be 300 years old and goes by the moniker “The Oracle of Los Angeles,” has been a professional witch for the last eight years. Before that, she was an arts teacher with an MFA in writing, film, and critical theory from California Institute of the Arts. As with all forms of paganism, Garcia’s work represents an attempt to gain power over a seemingly chaotic world using magic and other esoteric practices—although it is cloaked in more acceptable modern language.
“Today’s working witches,” Netburn observes, “whose prominence is growing thanks to social media, primarily see themselves as healers. They help clients who are struggling to cope with life’s hurdles — heartache, aging, misogyny, work stress — and who find that more culturally accepted remedies, such as therapy and meditation, aren’t enough.”
Netburn adds, perhaps echoing a certain prosperity preacher who offers people “your best life now”: “They want to help you be your best possible self, or as the Oracle puts it, ‘My contribution is to … cultivate beauty and love in my clients and help them thrive.’”
Isn’t that the calling of pastors and churches as they lead people to Jesus Christ, the source of all beauty, and to God, who is the font of all love? In any event, all human thriving apart from the Triune God of Scripture is doomed to failure, in this world or the next. Only Jesus Christ—“the way, and the truth, and the life”—can provide lasting shalom.
As Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson notes, “The radical anthropology at the heart of Christianity became the main basis for the abolitionist movement, for the suffrage movement, for the reform of prisons and asylums, for efforts encouraging temperance and for the improvement of industrial working conditions.” Ancient paganism, locked in a worldview with no past or future, never even dreamed of these things.
As well, human beings have only one path to eternal life, provided by a certain Jewish rabbi who died and rose two millennia ago. As one of His closest friends solemnly yet joyously testified:
And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.
I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.
The Son of God was used to dealing with tempting spiritual counterfeits when He walked the earth. With great compassion He warned the gullible, the seeking, the hurting, and the curious not to follow them but instead to receive the abundant life that only He can provide. The only way people can begin to become their best possible selves is to take up their cross and follow Him.
It is a difficult road, but the only safe one, which few have the courage to traverse. For, as C.K. Chesterton actually did say, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”
Stan Guthrie is an editor at large for the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He is the author of the forthcoming book Victorious: Corrie ten Boom and The Hiding Place.