WASHINGTON — The number of Americans who claim to be witches has increased dramatically over the past 30 years.
An estimated 1 to 1.5 million people say they practice Wicca or paganism, a rise from an estimated 8,000 Wiccans in 1990 and 340,000 in 2008.
In 2014, a Pew Research Center survey found about 0.4% of Americans identify themselves as pagan or Wiccan, a significant increase over prior years.
If accurate, the Pew data would suggest that there are more self-identified “witches” in the United States than members of some mainline Protestant denominations. For example, according to 2017 figures, there are 1.4 million practicing Presbyterians in the United States.
Wicca is a form of modern pagan witchcraft begun in the 1940s and 1950s in the United Kingdom. Those who practice Wicca often refer to themselves as “witches.” People who practice other forms of witchcraft may not identify with the “Wiccan” or “pagan” label, meaning that the number of self-identified witches in the United States might actually be higher than reported.
Online, witchcraft has become increasingly popular and mainstream. The hashtag “#WitchesofInstagram” has been used nearly 2 million times on Instagram, featuring images of crystals, pentagrams and people sharing their experiences as witches.
A priest pursuing doctoral studies in exorcisms told CNA that he was not surprised by the increasing number of Americans interested in dabbling in witchcraft.
The priest, who asked not be identified because of the attention exorcist priests often receive, pointed to the increasing popularity of spiritualism in general, which includes yoga and Ouija and the need for instant results in American culture.
He theorized that people who are dissatisfied with their religion begin to look for a “quick fix — magic.”
And while some witches differentiate between “white magic” and “black magic,” with black magic being intentionally malicious, he rejected the idea there could be any such thing as positive or harmless magic.
“Both of them are associated with Satan, and he’s in charge of that,” the priest told CNA.
People who embrace one form of witchcraft, whether to find love or solve a problem, may find themselves “trapped” in the world of the occult, he said.
“I have personally had many, many experiences of people coming to me” with issues that stemmed from something initially thought to be innocuous, he said.
The modern appeal of paganism may stem from Christianity’s early roots, the priest said. When Christianity first spread to pagan areas — Ireland, France, etc. — the people who lived there were incredibly superstitious. Christianity was able to provide a sort of spiritual reassurance.
“Christianity always has good news, and the good news is that the devil is overcome,” he said.
Now, he said, as people have begun to turn away from the message of Christ’s lordship and have begun to “glorify their own reason and understanding,” Christianity has become less appealing to some, with some people returning to the superstitious practices of long ago.
A lack of faith in the Christian God coupled with the “very hedonistic society” of modern times adds to the appeal of the supposed “quick fix” of magic, he said.
“Anything we want, we have to have right away,” he said.
“I mean, if I suffer, I need to have a solution. Even if you go to a hospital, you look at the chart, and they always ask you: ‘How do you feel from [a scale of] one to 10?’ and if you feel that your pain is too high, they will pump you with opioid painkillers.”
These comments were echoed by Dominican Father Thomas Petri, vice president and academic dean at the Dominican House of Studies.
Petri told CNA that he did not find it surprising that some people who have turned away from Christianity would turn toward pagan worship.
“Man is essentially a religious animal who seeks meaning beyond the ordinary and so is prone to worship powers beyond himself,” he explained.
The increase of self-identified “witches” could also be a result of Satan, he said, who “is actively at work in the world seeking to drive as many people away from salvation in Christ as he can.” Satan, he said, does this “under the guise of principalities and powers that some people think are more novel and powerful than Christ.”
“Sadly, they couldn’t be more wrong, and they need our prayers.”