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Factchecking Wicca

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There's a fascinating story in this morning's The New York Times about Wiccans in the armed forces, who have won the right to have a pentagram inscribed on their veterans' tombstones.

But the very capable Neela Banerjee, who writes about religion frequently, makes one big mistake: Wicca is not "a type of pre-Christian belief that reveres nature and its cycles." As I and others have explained, Wicca is a 19th- and 20th-century invention with a creative backstory invented to lend it historical legitimacy. To point out this uncomfortable fact is, as I have learned, to invite dozens of scornful emails from Wiccans pleading abuse of their heritage, promising to haul me before coven tribunals, and threatening cease-and-desist orders from the Wiccan Legal Defense Fund (I'm exaggerating only slightly). But just blithely accepting the myth of an ancient Wiccan pre-history is worrisome for several reasons.

First, this myth is tied closely to what the scholar Cynthia Eller calls "the myth of matriarchal prehistory," the notion that thousands of years ago the world was ruled by peaceful, matriarchal goddess cults (from whom many Wiccans claim spiritual descent). Would that it were true, but it's not, and too many well-meaning history teachers have bought into this bad, biased history in the interests of multiculturalism and progressivism.

Second, the prevalence of the ancient-Wicca myth is testament in part to the decline of religion journalism. Although religion has never been the most intelligently covered of subjects, matters are getting worse. Newspapers are cutting religion jobs: The Wall Street Journal no longer has a religion writer and The Hartford Courant used my departure from the religion job in 2001 as a chance to cut a job by attrition.

This shrinking of the religion-writer guild has coincided precisely with a time in our culture when we need more and better religion writing: 9/11, the second Intifada, the priest scandals in the Roman Catholic church, and the war in Iraq all cry out for intelligent religion coverage. Some newspapers have responded with excellent coverage - the Times' Pulitzer-winning series about an imam in New York being a good example - but there has also been an uptick in credulousness: trying to be sensitive to, say, Wiccans, a reporter might fail to question their absurd claims.

Finally, taking Wiccans' claims at face value misses a chance to make an interesting point about religion: that religions can be valuable, and even metaphysically true, even if some of their origin stories are myths. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all have patently absurd origin stories, and no wise, sane person accepts the literal truth of any of them. But they are all magisterial human (and perhaps divine) creations. They are not diminished because part of their stories are mythology, rather than fact. The same might be true of Wicca. But the great religions survive and thrive despite the un-truths on which they're founded. They have access to higher, different emotional or moral truths.

We thus do Wiccans no favors by repeating their archaeologically disprovable notions about ancient antecedents. Reporters are reporters, and our job is to get at the facts. If Wicca is as powerful as its adherents believe, it can survive, and should welcome, the scrutiny.