Netty has been practising magic for 16 years. She cast a spell to get her current job in banking. She credits other spells with securing subsequent salary raises. She once used a spell to make her boss like her more. Another bagged her the love of her life, seven years ago. She still has the honey jar she used for it – into which she put herbs, a petition and a Corona bottle cap he’d discarded. (She assures me he knows about it.) Raised a Catholic, Netty has not completely reneged on the faith, nor does she see any conflict in casting spells and praying to saints. You might call her a Christian witch. You might be surprised to know there are thousands of them.
Organised religion is in decline. In Western countries, growing numbers are turning their backs on the Church. Thousands of churches shutter each year, faced with dwindling congregations and funds. The 2021 census on religion in England and Wales alarmed many: for the first time since its advent in 1801, less than half the population described themselves as Christian, down from 72 per cent two decades ago. Those ticking “no religion”, the second-most common response, soared to 37.2 per cent. The UK is now, statistically speaking, one of the least religious countries in the world.
Across the Atlantic, the story is similar. In 2020 less than half of Americans belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque, the first time congregants slid below the majority in Gallup’s eight-decade study. The holy current in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Europe is flowing in the same direction.
Cue howls of a “godless generation”. “The loss of faith”. Or, as this magazine put it, “Britain’s crisis of unbelief”. But such laments fail to observe that the decline of organised religion does not necessarily mean the demise of faith. In its absence, alternative forms of spirituality are flourishing. Statistics bear out the theory. According to a 2017 Pew survey, a quarter of Americans think of themselves as “spiritual but not religious”. A survey of the UK’s “nones” by the Theos think tank found 17 per cent believed in the power of prayer, 16 per cent in reincarnation, 14 per cent in the healing power of crystals and 42 per cent in the supernatural. Young people are more likely to believe in life after death than older generations despite being less religious in general, this year’s World Values Study revealed.
Even those of us who don’t deem ourselves spiritual or shudder at anything too “woo-woo” likely dabble in some form of spirituality. Do you practise yoga? Meditate? Get daily nudges from the astrology Co-Star app? Looks like you belong to the “DIY spirituality” generation too.
Witchcraft is one form of alternative spirituality in the ascendant: #witchtok has more than 45 billion views on TikTok. Witch influencers proliferate on social media. Eight million #witchcraft Instagram posts detail the how, what and when of magic: moon rituals, hexes, tarot cards, herbal potions, spells. Reddit pages such as r/witch (101,000 members) and r/witchcraft (383,000) garner hundreds of sincere comments each day. Advice is sought and given: how-tos on friendship spells, drying herbs, charging crystals, candle divination. What was for centuries fringe and at times heretical is becoming accepted, even revered, particularly among the young.
Within the phenomenon, something interesting is happening: increasing numbers are swapping organised religion for witchcraft, or attempting to marry the two. The reasons are myriad, complex and often deeply personal. Why are believers ditching the church for magic? And what can this tell us about the decline of traditional religion?
Netty, now 38 and living in Las Vegas, grew up in a strict Hispanic Catholic household in New York in which dogma delineated womanhood, faith and the wider world. Her first foray into magic was at 13, after experiencing relentless night terrors and sleep paralysis that her faith could neither explain nor ameliorate. She followed a defensive meditation prescribed in a book – The Occult Truth by Konstantinos – and the terrors vanished. Today, her faith is omnistic: finding truth in every religion. She draws on American folk magic for blessing; works with Catholic saints; uses Buddhist house-clearing techniques to help Reddit friends with ghost problems.
Leaving traditional religious structures enabled her to take control of her spiritual development. “I found it very limiting,” she says of Catholicism. “It’s way too rigid. Every religion has spirituality, and they co-exist as it is, but everybody’s concerned about a right or wrong answer – can’t everything just exist together? Can’t saints and bodhisattvas both be great?”
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I wonder whether it’s part of the general decline in deference – a pick ’n’ mix attitude to faith that allows individuals to curate beliefs that work for them. “People nowadays are a lot more open-minded and free-spirited,” Netty remarks. “It’s also just a lot more exciting: witchcraft is fun, personalised, personally empowering.”
Many who have left established religion for witchcraft note the Church’s role in the oppression of women and the continued use of religion in some countries as a vehicle for suppressing women’s rights. They find the Church incompatible with their sense of self and empowerment. Witchcraft celebrates feminine power. And witches, mostly women, were persecuted by the Church. Some of it, at least, is a middle finger to what’s seen as an intrinsically patriarchal institution; a recognition of powerlessness and an attempt to reclaim that power.
Sarah was raised an evangelical Christian in Hertfordshire. Life was punctuated by judgements on everything from the big to the minute, sexuality to jewellery. “We were taught wives must be submissive to their husbands,” she recalls. “That was drummed in quite early on.” She recites a verse in Ephesians: “‘Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church.’ Women had to cover up as they were responsible for men’s sexual desires. It was scary to think you had that sort of responsibility put on you as soon as you started looking like a woman.”
Sarah married a man 17 years her senior, whom she had met at church when she was 15 (they have since divorced). Before the wedding, she went on a marriage course that detailed the distinct roles of each sex. At home, expressing or exploring sexuality was forbidden, she says, and hers remained “stunted” until much later in life. “Masturbation was seen as a dirty thing, it wasn’t allowed. I didn’t even try.”
“The sexism is a huge issue for me,” Netty says. “Even if you become a nun, you’re always going to be subservient to men. You don’t get to be a leader in your own religion. I would have been a fully fledged priest if I was allowed to be.”
When Sarah left the Church aged 25, she found freedom, though she lost much of her family. She still believes in god – but not that one. She spends a lot of time speaking to the dead, and Jesus, and multiple other gods and angels, as well as studying natal charts, tarot and paganism and casting spells to bring in good fortune or cut ties with exes.
A common thread woven throughout the stories I hear is the belief that the Church is out of touch with the modern world, exemplified by its sclerotic stance on LGBTQ rights. Pope Francis has made tentative attempts to modernise and in February the Church of England voted to allow priests to bless the unions of same-sex couples, but the backlash from traditionalists has been loud. More Britons think aliens have visited Earth than have a positive attitude towards religion.
One young man I talk to, going by the moniker Dreagonheart, grew up Christian but left the Church after he discovered he was queer: “I ended up being told by my church that I couldn’t teach Sunday school anymore, so I left.” For a while he felt untethered. “Eventually, I started exploring tarot. I had always had an interest but believed I shouldn’t interact with it because of church opinions. It gave me a structured yet not rigid way of communing with god. Tarot and similar practices work well with my faith.”
Religion provides important things for human beings: community, a sense of greater meaning and purpose, a moral code on how to move through the world with kindness. Sarah misses her church family, but is finding community at her local Mind charity. Dreagonheart found his in an interfaith group: a pagan polytheist, a Hellenist, an agnostic and a Christian.
“Belief is the bit that’s important,” says Lisa, 28, a Protestant turned green witch (one whose magic is rooted in the natural world). “Whether it’s herbs, rituals or God, meaning is what we need. A way to have faith and hope instead of being the victim.”
Perhaps the decline in organised religion illuminates not our lack of faith but our shared disillusionment with what the Church embodies and the proscriptions it places on its adherents. Spiritual practices and rituals anchor us. We still need them. And we will continue to look for them, even if joining Sunday mass is no longer a part of that search.
Faith is not fading. It’s just manifesting in different, witchier ways.
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