BY SIAN FERGUSON
A more spiritual person might have believed I picked up the book because of some kind of higher purpose, but at the time, I thought I was merely attracted by the color: a pale lilac that spelt the word 'Wicca' in a simple font on the book’s spine.
A year ago, I stood in that bookstore debating whether I should buy the book or not. I didn’t know then that my choice in buying that book — and more importantly, reading it — would lead me to where I am today.
Wicca wasn’t something that usually appealed to me. At the time, I was a hardcore atheist. While I tolerated religious beliefs, I found myself quite incapable of placing faith in a higher power.
I wasn’t always an atheist. I was raised in a family that was partly Christian and partly Muslim. My childhood seldom involved church, but was filled with family members invoking biblical verses and prayer in times of need. Uncomfortable with this contradiction, and influenced by my school friends, I began attending church and Bible study groups regularly at the age of 14.
I felt like Christianity was something I could be good at. I was never pretty or good at sports, and I could never socialize easily, so I always felt valuable when I did something smart. Studying religion — which is what I did, reading the Bible back-and-forth, twice — was a way I gave myself value. I worked hard at forming a relationship with God, with the church and with other Christians, partially because it was one of the few ways I felt valued.
But there was something else, too: When I was 12, I was sexually assaulted. While I’ve spoken and written about this numerous times, I couldn’t bring myself to tell anyone when I was that young. In lieu of a confidante, I had God — a mystical, all-loving higher being who was always ready to listen, even when I wasn’t ready to talk. Prayer became a form of healing, and partial substitute for human support.
I’m not sure when my faith fell apart, exactly. Perhaps it was when I realized my heart tightened when I was around certain girls, despite the fact that my church condemned queerness. It could have also been disenchantment with the church as an institution and I, a grumpy 16-year-old, was beginning to discover my anti-establishment tendencies.
If I’m entirely honest, though, I think my faith was shaken because science and logic made so much more sense to me. My intellect was so much easier to trust than my emotions: My emotions led me to make awful decisions, to have break-downs, to lose friends, to lose control of my heart. My mind, on the other hand, was shrewd.
Despite all this, I found myself plucking a lilac book from a local bookstore and devouring it in a few hours. But unlike the Bible, merely reading the book didn’t give me a sense of self-worth: the content did.
There’s something empowering and healing about a religion or philosophy that asks you to place faith in yourself. Witchcraft differs from the Islam and Christianity I knew precisely because of this. The first principle of Wicca, 'harm none' seemed intuitive to me. It seems a lot like the 'love thy neighbor' adage associated with Christianity.
But where the first principle differs to many Christian values is that 'harm none' includes harming yourself: As an older witch pointed out to me, Wicca requires that we treat ourselves with tender care and faith, and not just others. As someone who was all too familiar with the Catholic tendency to punish oneself, I found myself drawn to this first principle.
Witchcraft doesn’t simply tell us not to harm ourselves. In our teachings, spells and community, we’re often told that the power to bring about change — to cast spells, to ask for protection, to promote healing — resides within ourselves. We ordinary humans are highly powerful, and by tuning into ourselves we can unlock that power.
Many Wiccans follow higher powers — Goddesses and Gods — which we can call on for support and healing. Many of us also believe that power lives in our environment, in nature and in ourselves. And just as we’re encouraged to care for nature and our surrounds, we’re encouraged to take care of ourselves — something many of us struggle to do. Treating yourself with the respect and love a deity deserves is a revolutionary concept.
Of course, not all witches are religious. 'Witch' and 'atheist' aren’t mutually exclusive labels, and many people view witchcraft as a way of life and a philosophy rather than a religion. But in my case, witchcraft blurs the line between religion and philosophy, between self-love and faith. Approaching it as a recovering atheist has brought me a great deal of insight into religion and into myself.
I say I’m a 'recovering atheist' because, in my case, my lack of faith ran deeper than religion. I had a lack of faith in a higher power, definitely — but more than that, I had a lack of faith in myself. While this isn’t the case for many atheists, my atheism was a mask. I used my dedication to 'logic' to refuse myself the space to feel: to feel a sense of belief in a higher power, and to feel my own pain.
I think it will take a while before I shed my fear of religion. But I think that my love for witchcraft has started unraveling my fear of my own inner power, and that’s a start.
Sian Ferguson is a full-time freelance writer based in South Africa. Her work has been featured on various sites, including Ravishly, MassRoots, Matador Network and more. She’s particularly interested in writing about queer issues, misogyny, healing after sexual trauma and rape culture. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram. Read her articles here.