Blood, Sugar, Sex, Magic (and the Occult)

It's more than just the American goth...

It's more than just the American goth...

Blood, Sugar, Sex, Magic (and the Occult)

(You can hear our episode on this topic here)

What’s the Problem?

Our post-recession, anxiety ridden age might have found a cure for what ails them.  And don’t worry, it’s not the nihilistic atheism the older generation fears.  Rather it’s the occult and witchcraft.  And this might very well give some in the older generation a heart attack.

 

But this isn’t the loony occultism or witchcraft you may have been “warned” about in youth groups or by the moral crusading type.  Rather it is a thoughtful (although eccentric) and sincerely held belief in the supernatural and the radically affirming spirituality of the disenfranchised.  Sure, it might seem silly or bizarre to many, but the numbers back up the belief that while we don’t know how long it will stay, we know witchcraft and the occult are here as a significant spiritual trend.

 

What evidence do you have? Where can I read more?

One in five people claim no religious affiliation (the highest since Gallup started polling over 80 years ago).  However, among those polled the same number of people who claim no religious affiliation believe in communication with the dead, witches and reincarnation. More than one in four believe in astrology and clairvoyance.  Approximately one in three believe in ghosts, haunted houses and telepathy. Some of this might smack of counter cultural preening, over-the-top shock movements. Yet this isn’t happening primarily amongst devotees of Tim Burton, Cure cover bands, or backwoods snake oil salesmen.  The largest jump has occurred in the belief in witches, an increase of 12% primarily amongst college educated middle class caucasians.  

 

What does this mean?

Before you grabbing a wooden stake or cloves of garlic (good for Dracula, probably good for garden variety occultists), think about what this might mean.  We may be told that this is the least religious generation in American history.  We may think that we live in a nihilistic and godless age.  Maybe this is true in some places.  But the rise in Occultism might suggest that we are turning a corner from crass materialism and reductionism to a belief that something is out there.  Rituals for cleansing, healing, restoring etc… are as old as any organized religion.  The need to connect to the otherworldly and transcendent seems to be a dominant human theme.  And if the counter-culture of the baby boomers sought to turn “old time religion” on its ear, the new occultists may be trying to tip the old school back into relevancy.

 

It is difficult, however, to understand exactly what the new occultists believe.  Without standard texts, governing bodies and official statements of faith we may never know what the group as a whole believes.  And while those of us in the Christian tradition are insistent on a body of shared belief (to some extent, depending who you ask it may be more or less that is shared), the extrasensory, ghost and reincarnation believing crowd are punching back against a form of religion that requires some kind of confessional subscription (once again, it depends who you ask, but there is some shared confession amongst all Christians by definition).  The new occultist tends to be anti-hierarchy and patriarchal.  And can we blame them?  What has the hierarchy and perceived cabal of old white men done for the disenfranchised?  Regardless of your political party, it seems pretty obvious that all is not well.  Perhaps raging against the perceived hierarchy and paternalism is shooting at the wrong targets, but it is shooting at targets nonetheless.  The kids are mad, spiritually inclined (if not religious), and looking for new answers to life’s important questions.

Is Everything Going to Be Ok?

As a college professor I have had all number of students in my office talking about what matters to them and why it is supremely important even if unpopular.  It would be foolish and counterproductive for me to insist that they give up all of their sincerely held beliefs before I could engage them in dialog about matters of life and (eventual) death.  What might seem outlandish or foolish to me, might be a wormhole capable of starting a broad conversation about temporal and spiritual maladies.  A belief in nothing turns conversation into the equivalent of multiplying something by nothing.  A belief in something allows us to ponder, calculate and respond.  Consider the following quote from C.S. Lewis describing his childhood love of the theosophists, Rosicrucians and Occultists:

And that started in me something with which, on and off, I have had plenty of trouble since--the desire for the preternatural, simply as such, the passion for the Occult. Not everyone has this disease; those who have will know what I mean. I once tried to describe it in a novel. It is a spiritual lust; and like the lust of the body it has the fatal power of making everything else in the world seem uninteresting while it lasts.

The occult not only makes the world “interesting” which may explain some of its pull, but it also is a “spiritual lust” and has the advantage over atheism of re-spiritualizing the world.  So maybe we aren’t going to hell in a hand basket (maybe we will reincarnate or become ghosts), and maybe that which we don’t understand or may mock comes not only from ignorance but a fear that the “kids aren’t doing it right”.  And maybe they aren’t.  Maybe witches and ghosts and the great pumpkin are sincerely held, but foolish, beliefs.  Maybe some have said that about you or me.  The new occultists might seem bizarre, but they may also be unveiling a path in the right direction towards a robust spirituality tied to historical revelation and concrete propositions.  Maybe not.  But this data shows us that we can say, with confidence, “maybe so”.

 

Dr. van Voorhis is a former professor and Dean at Concordia University, Irvine.  He is currently the co-host and producer of the Virtue in the Wasteland podcast, a member of the 1517 Legacy Project team, and author of Monsters: Addiction, Hope, Ex-Girlfriends and Other Dangerous Things

Daniel van Voorhis