Despite being a Christian campus, Hope College has students with a wide variety of religions, including those who do not believe or proclaim their beliefs about God. This article will begin a series on students with unique-to-Hope religious beliefs, starting with student Piper Arington (’22), who practices Wicca.
As one of the many resident Christians on Hope’s campus, I knew nothing about being Wiccan before talking to Arington. I first asked her to describe her religion: “Wicca to me means being connected to nature and the flow of life throughout the universe. It really is like spiritually connecting with the Earth; it involves a lot of meditation and grounding yourself in the elements of water, wind, earth and fire.” Similar to how many people have discovered Christianity (or other religions), Arington “found Wicca through a lot of soul searching and exploration. I really just looked for a religion that could coincide with what I believe. I stumbled pon a book that explained the basic theology of Wicca. The best way I can describe it was like a key turning in the lock. It just fit so well with everything I believed and felt.”
In contrast to the more structurally based religions like Catholicism, which has an extensive religious infrastructure, Wicca relies on the spiritual needs and feelings of the individual practicing it to inform everyday practice and tradition. “Everyday practice in Wicca varies from person to person. It is very much a religion where you practice in a way that feels right to you. There is really only one guiding principle we all live by: These eight words the Rede fulfill: An Ye Harm None, Do What Ye Will. My personal everyday practice begins with a meditation, often accompanied by soft music (typically Celtic). I will then say a prayer to the Lord and Lady. On special occasions such as Samhain or Beltane, there are rituals involving the four elements, making food, chanting, enchanting items or a variety of different activities.”
Holidays in Wicca often coincide with traditional major holidays like Halloween, Christmas and Easter. I asked Arington about Wiccan holidays and how she celebrates those in comparison to “normal” holidays: “One thing to understand about Wicca is that it lies on a spectrum. You can be anywhere from polytheistic to duotheistic to Christian to agnostic. So there are some Wiccans who celebrate the normal holidays of Christmas and Easter. Personally I do not.” Arington described Wiccan holidays as “centered on equinoxes and solstices. We call them the Sabbats and there are eight of them: four major and four minor. The four major Sabbats are Beltane, Lamas, Samhain and Imbolc. The four minor are Yule, Ostara, Litha and Mabon. These are usually celebrated with specific rituals for each Sabbat. Most involve altars, songs, food offerings and other small activities.” The altars can involve different symbolic items meant for worship or prayer to the Lord and Lady, otherwise referenced as the God and Goddess.
I specifically asked Arington about her celebration of Halloween, as the holiday had just passed. “Halloween and Samhain (pronounced saah-win) both fall on October 31. The main difference? For Wiccans, Samhain is the New Year’s celebration. It is the end of harvest and beginning of the new spiritual year. It is the biggest celebration for my personal practice.” While people of other religions may participate in Halloween as a secular holiday or modify their celebration to be more in line with their beliefs, Arington sees her celebration as quite separate. “Samhain to me is a very large celebration and party. It just happens to coincide with a night when many others are out having fun for a different reason.”
Arington had trouble talking about how she practices Wicca on Hope’s campus. “It is difficult to describe practicing Wicca on campus. I do not feel comfortable openly practicing on campus, truth be told. I fear the backlash. A great majority of my religion involves being outside and casting grounding circles in the ground. The Pine Grove would be perfect for this. However, I am very aware of what Wicca looks like in practice. A lot of people mis-perceive it as witchcraft or even satanism. That automatically leads to mistrust or judgement of my character that is in no way true. The only place I feel I can be truly open is in my dorm room, and that is not ideal for the true way I would like to practice. I just feel like the Christian presence is so strong here that it can tend to snuff out any other practicing religion. I also understand that this is a Christian-founded school, so of course it is highly advertised. I do feel like assumptions are made sometimes. I recall a specific instance in a class where the professor offered to pray during class, and I just felt so uncomfortable. No one else in the class seemed to have an issue, so I chose not to voice my feelings. It just feels like there is a general assumption that everyone on campus is a Christian, which is not the case.”
A common confusion when thinking of Wicca is with the separate but similar practice of witchcraft. Arington described witchcraft as “the active practice of spells, enchantments and potions without a connection to religion or faith. Now, in the Wiccan faith all of these things are present, but they are done in the context of devotion to the Lord and Lady or different divinities. Wiccans can practice witchcraft, and many do, but you do not have to be Wiccan to practice witchcraft. The terms are complementary but not synonymous.” Again, Arington mentioned the main belief in Wicca: the Rede. She described the Rede as a guideline for how to act as a Wiccan: “This statement essentially says that no Wiccan will conduct magick in order to harm another living being. Witchcraft alone lacks this, so there is the possibility of dark magick (magick intended to harm another) to be practiced. This is simply not possible in the Wiccan religion.”
On and around Halloween, a multitude of witch costumes and imagery can be seen. “I personally don’t mind the witch costumes and things,” Arington said about Halloween. “I tend to joke about being ‘offended’ but really because I consider witchcraft different from Wicca, I see no ties to myself.”
People have many misconceptions about Wicca that correspond with its confusion with witchcraft. “I think the overall largest misconception about Wiccans is our intent. We are not looking for excuses to ‘curse’ or ‘hex’ people; this is actually expressly against our beliefs. All we really want is to celebrate the power of earth and nature and give thanks to those powers that have gifted us with this beautiful home. Peace is my biggest motivator. If anything, I want to help as many people heal as I can. I often hold groundings, or rituals, to help my friends and loved ones heal from spiritual or physical pain. The easiest way to explain it is putting positive energy out into the world for a person or people.” Many Christian people practice this in some ways, by saying “Send positive vibes!” or “Think good thoughts!” about different activities.
Some people, when hearing the term “Wicca,” think immediately that it means the practice of satanism. “We are not necessarily satanists,” Arington said in response to this. “We are not looking to hurt or harm you. My biggest wish? That people would just ask me questions if they are confused. I love nothing more than gushing about my beliefs or practices. I am always willing to have a discussion over coffee if people are confused or just curious. If people desire it, I always assist in adding them to my rituals for peace or enchanting objects for them. I really just want to be one with nature and help people.”
Arington was not raised Wiccan but chose her own belief system, unlike how many other people are raised going to a specific church and raised to have those beliefs. “My family is not Wiccan. My mother and father are both agnostic and are very understanding of the way I choose to practice my faith,” Arington shared. “There is a split in my personal life when it comes to Wicca. My parents are fully supportive of my faith and the way I choose to practice. My close friends as well are extremely supportive which is a great gift to have. However, the older members of my family, such as my grandparents, have a very negative view of my religion. It has not caused any extreme issues, but that is mainly because they are mostly unaware. I have refrained from telling them because of the negative comments they say about what little they know of my religion.”
Practicing Wiccan does not involve a church or gathering place like many other religions. “There are certainly groups of Wiccans; they are typically referred to as covens. I choose to be a solitary practitioner, but there is the option of joining a group. They can be notoriously hard to find, though, because of the negative connotations surrounding Wicca. Most of us stay out of the limelight to avoid confrontation,” Arington mentioned. Even religions like Islam that face controversy still practice openly and have specified gathering places, while Wiccans generally face their negative stereotypes more individually, without the community that a common gathering space provides. While this is a personal choice on Arington’s part, the lack of knowledge about Wicca and the low levels of outreach by Wicacans to form relationships due to a fear of judgement and confrontation increases the stigma of secrecy and misunderstanding. This only allows for stereotypes against Wicca to continue in our society and proliferate, as there are few Wiccans who publicly practice or explain their religion. It can be easy to ignore a stigma that needs to be changed when those that practice Wicca (or any other less-followed or controversial religion) stay quiet for fear of adverse reactions to their beliefs, when in reality they are practicing a peaceful, love-giving religion.
Hope’s campus, as well as cultural misconceptions grown through centuries of witch-hunts and forced religion, have exacerbated the negative connotations that surround Wicca and prevent Arington from practicing her beliefs freely and without fear of consequences. Hope’s campus claims to be free of judgment and to be a welcoming space for all people, yet some do not feel welcome due to the judgment they may face from Christian people who do not understand, and may even fear, their religion. In many cases, this fear only increases the stereotype’s significance and creates a larger divide between individuals and religions.
Arington advocated for peace, spoke highly of keeping friends and family in her worship and promoted a great respect of nature: all things highly similar to Christian religions, yet she fears speaking out about her beliefs. Hope, while being a Christian college, also must be a place where people of other religions feel comfortable and welcomed as they pursue their education. By starting conversations about beliefs that are contrary to or just different from Christianity, Hope’s environment can change, and people can slowly begin to learn how to challenge their own beliefs by exploring and accepting the beliefs of others.
Hope is not only a place for Christians, but for those who do not believe in God, believe in a different God or believe in something that they may not even be sure of. Arington has started an important conversation by offering to share her beliefs, and this can only be continued with more individuals who have beliefs that differ from Christianity. If you are interested in talking about your beliefs or questions about faith, no matter what it may be, please contact me at email@example.com and we can arrange an interview.