Wicca 101: Lesson 2, Coven or Solitary?
| Introduction | Joining A Coven | Why Cults Exist | The Attraction of a Cult | How to Identify a Cult Leader | Church vs. Cult | A Personal Story |

Welcome to Lesson 2 of the Beginner Wicca 101 course. Make sure to follow the off-site links, if any, to get the full scope of information available for each subject. At the bottom of this page is a link to move forward to the next lesson. At the end of the course, there will be an online test.

Introduction

The article you’re about to read on Cults was copied from an e-book I found on a website. It was directed entirely toward Christian Cults, so I changed the text to identify it to religion in general and to Wicca specifically. Some of the descriptions in this article point out Wicca in general as a Cult. However, where Wicca is concerned, it is the straightforward honesty of the group and its leader that sets a positive Wiccan group apart from a Wiccan Cult. I added commentary and included my personal story of a Wiccan Cult experience. Reading this publication is exactly what made me realize that the group I was involved with was indeed a Cult. Every student of Wicca should read this article before deciding to join a coven or church of Wicca.

Joining A Coven

Most people who discover Wicca become very concerned that they cannot find a coven to join. Though being part of a group can be very helpful when learning new things, I don't consider it necessary. Reading books can teach you a great deal, and you can learn at your own pace. Some traditions in Wicca (Gardnerian, for example) require coven initiations because much of their teachings are only available in such a way. But solitary Wicca is becoming an acceptable path as well, and coven participation is not mandatory. Here are some things to think about if you are considering joining one. Some traditionalists say that you must be initiated into a coven in order to call yourself "Wiccan", but I prefer to take a less-formal approach and let each person decide for themselves.

Good Reasons to Join

Poor Reasons to Join

Please note these are not hard and fast rules by any means. These are just some things to think about. If you decide that joining a coven is right for you, make sure to do some research! Talk to people, ask lots of questions and go with your gut. If something seems 'off' about a group of people, then keep looking.

Why Cults Exist

We don’t like to think about it, but it’s true that some people get involved with Wicca because they are on a power trip and feel the need to control others. The hierarchical structure, separatist attitude, and “secrecy” of Wicca is like a homing beacon to these types of people. These isolated Wiccan groups are referred to as Cults by Christians, who have their own term for Christian Cults. They call them Dangerous Religious Groups. I guess they felt the need to throw in the terms “religious” and “groups” to distinguish them from Wiccan Cults and to downplay Wicca as a religion. Despite this word play, they are nearly identical in their methods and goals. Since Wicca is now recognized as a legitimate religion and its ministers are recognized, it is easier for a Wiccan Cult to deceive its victims. I call this ‘hiding in the light’. What seeker would suspect an open and legitimate Wiccan Church of being a Cult? Many who seek Wicca are former Christians who are angry with Christianity or their ministers.

It's important for us to remember that cults have their logic. It's a mistake to think that the religious fringe is made up of irrational, fanatical expressions of misguided, uneducated victims. Religious splinter groups are usually fueled, in part, by a carefully reasoned attempt to renew the logic, faith, and personal sacrifice that has been claimed but lost by traditional religion. With prophetic insight that is often missing in surrounding society, these groups believe they can see the road ahead much clearer than those who are content to ride the current of social drift. Articulate, authoritarian leaders expose the dangers facing those who worship without emotion, faith, sacrifice, or obedience. With unsparing reason they point to parents and pastors and whole denominations that seem to have been swallowed up in a loss of their "first love," weak faith, blind hypocrisy, and spiritual warmness.

From the inside out, the members of such groups see themselves as far less dangerous than those who have a business-as-usual attitude. In the face of their accusers, it is obvious to them that:

"We're not crazy, you are. You are the ones who've lost touch with reality. You are the ones who say you believe in God while living as if you don't. You are the ones who say you believe that the Bible is the Word of God while failing to read and study and obey it. You are the ones who say you believe in life after death while living as if material prosperity is all that counts."

"We're not throwing away the future, you are. You tell us to open our eyes and see what is happening to us. You say that we are throwing away our lives and giving ourselves to a leader who doesn't deserve our commitment. But you are the ones who can't see what is happening. You don't see the signs of the times. You don't see where society is headed, where your love of money is taking you, and how full of regret you're going to be on judgment day."

"We're not over-committed, you are. You say we are fanatically over-committed. But not like you. You are the ones who are over-extended in material debt and over-invested in institutions and traditions that are headed for imminent collapse. You are the ones who believe that you can please God with token prayers, while giving 99 percent of your attention to your job, your home, your family, and your recreations."

"We're not the ones who are rejecting Christ, you are. You say you believe in Him. But He said, 'If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple'" (Luke 14:26-27). According to the Bible, hatred is a pre-requisite to be a disciple of Christ. Yet, followers of Christ are told to love their fellow man and forgive their trespassers. "That which you do unto the least of these, you also do unto me." Type 'definition: disciple' into the Google search engine and read all the varying definitions of the word "disciple".

Often, these Christian converts to Wicca never entirely leave Christianity behind. There is even a legitimate form of Wicca called Christian Wicca created by converts who simply could not let go of their belief in Christ. The Unitarian Church and Universal Life Church feeds on this as well. These churches are cases where a Christian church has redefined religion so it would not lose its followers. The logic of Cults is never all wrong. The errors of judgment that can be so invisible to those on the inside are often opportunities for those on the outside to learn lessons of the heart. While the destruction is obvious, none of us can afford to stop looking for the thinking that is present in all of us. I’m certain that many people think and feel this way about religion, be it Christianity or Wicca. The destruction doesn’t lie in these independent thoughts. The destruction lies in those who take advantage of the people who feel this way.

The Attraction of A Cult

Whether you’re interested in joining a Coven or a Church, there are signs you should watch for. When you meet the friendliest people you have ever known, who introduce you to the most loving group of people you've ever encountered, and you find the leader to be the most inspired, caring, compassionate, and understanding person you have ever met, and then you learn that the cause of the group is something you never dared hope could be accomplished, and all of this sounds too good to be true--it probably is too good to be true! Don't give up your education, your hopes, and ambitions to follow a rainbow. False groups do not draw their strength from their errors. They draw strength from their ability to counterfeit elements that are present in healthy religious groups but are treated differently.

Idealism. Cults are often made up of disappointed idealists who have been burned in traditional churches. They believe religion has raised them up to accomplish what others have failed to do. Their vision is to recover the lost purpose of religion.

Authority. Those who are looking for unambiguous direction, boundaries, and security are drawn to the safety in structure that authoritarian leadership provides.

Enthusiasm. People who have had a taste of dead orthodoxy will be especially attracted to an enthusiastic spiritual experience. Few discoveries are more appealing than finding a group excited about what it has--even if the group is wrong.

Family. Within a destructive group there is often an intense sense of identity and family. Family members are viewed as brothers and sisters, united against the outside world. Their unity may or may not be found in religion, however, it is usually in their leader, mentor, and teacher.

Doctrinal Emphasis. Many Cults give much attention to study. But their learning is often carefully orchestrated by clever leaders who provide their own interpretation of what they read. Members are warned about reading authors who are outside of their group or religion.

Sacrifice. Former members of Cults say that one of the things so appealing was that the group asked them for a sense of commitment and belief that cost something. One member says, "It doesn't start out that you are the only ones who have the truth, but that you are the only ones making sacrifices for the truth. I didn't want anything cheap. I wanted something that cost me for my commitment."

Exclusivity. Cult members often develop the belief that they alone have been entrusted with the truth. The opportunity to be a part of a select group is attractive.

Indoctrination. An additional mark of many destructive religious groups is their use of sophisticated methods of recruitment and coercive persuasion. Rather than allowing converts to make decisions of faith based on their own sense of good judgment, some groups break down individual thinking by one or more of the following techniques:

Isolation. Recruits are isolated from family, friends, and news media in order to screen out opposing points of view.

Peer-group Pressure. Potential converts are subjected to intense persuasion by group members.

Love Bombing. Group members give prospects an overwhelming sense of acceptance, belonging, and significance by "bombing" them with flattery, touching, and hugging.

Removal of Privacy. Recruits are never left alone to collect and discover their own thoughts.

Sleep Deprivation and Fatigue. A person's resistance is broken down by long meetings and extended work hours.

Games. Complex games are played for the purpose of creating a sense of dependence on the rule-giving leader.

Mind Control. Members are conditioned to stop thinking and to accept without question the revelations and doctrines of their leader.

Confession. The self-respect of the members is broken down through persuading them to share their innermost secrets with the group.

Change of Diet. Members are provided inadequate nutrition, which breaks down their resistance and makes them vulnerable to suggestion.

Fear. Negative thoughts or doubts about the group or its leader are said to be soul-threatening. Anyone leaving the group is warned about harsh consequences.

Chanting and Singing. Members are subjected to constant repetition, which blocks their rational thought processes.

Childlike Dependence. The leader demands absolute submission to his/her control.

No Questions. Followers are taught to accept without question the revelations and interpretations of their leaders.

Dress. Conformity of dress is encouraged to suppress individuality.

Elitism. Every religious leader outside the group is held in disdain.

The result of Cult indoctrination tends to follow a pattern. While all of us need to look for destructive thinking in ourselves, there are certain patterns that keep showing up in Cults.

Dependence on gifted leaders, who by claiming to speak for a deity put themselves above question.

Overreaction to the excesses, compromises, and hypocrisy of traditional religion.

Withdrawal from society, in the conviction that "we alone" are making sacrifices worthy of a deity.

Cutting off all outside sources of information and accountability.

View of truth changes from what is honest to what is in the interest of the group.

Self-justification based on the belief that outsiders are under the control of an opposing religion.

Loss of freedom as individual thoughts, feelings, and choices are increasingly replaced by group thoughts, feelings, and decisions.

Loss of conscience as the group and its leaders draw the individual into behaviors (often sexual) that destroy moral courage.

Adjustment of expectations from what was originally promised to what is received.

Fear of leaving the group.

These are the some of the conditions that often develop in groups that end up betraying the trust of their followers. We need to keep in mind, however, the seductive way in which such conditions develop. The errors of a group often show up slowly--through the tactic of "Bait and Switch." It is the kind of deception that can show up not only in others but in and among ourselves as well.

How to Identify A Cult Leader

It would be helpful if destructive leaders understood and declared their own motives from the beginning. It would be helpful if they made it clear that their intent is not to serve but to be served, not to give but to receive, not to love but to be loved. It would be helpful if they would always come from the "outside" rather than from "within." Cult leaders don't let their groups know that they are slowly giving old words new meaning, or that they are showing a love that at some point will turn into rigid, authoritarian control. They may not even realize the extent to which they are flattering followers, exaggerating stories of psychic ability, and claiming conversations with the Spirit that are rooted in their own imagination.

Yet eventually, individuals who have sacrificed everything to follow a trusted leader begin to see and hear things they never expected to see or hear from a spiritual person. At this point, however, a price has been paid. Too many sacrifices have already been made. Bridges have been burned. Commitments have been formed. It's just easier to give the leader the benefit of the doubt and to believe, "This must be a way of testing our faith. The good of the group is at stake. Too many people would love to see us break up and admit that we've been taken in. We know he told us the truth about so many things. We just have to keep our faith and keep going." It usually takes time before it becomes undeniable that the one they've invested so much trust in is not who they thought he was. What a painful realization, what an embarrassment to admit that this leader has misrepresented religion. Yet a growing number are going through the emotionally devastating process of separating from such groups. They are recovering their freedom and sense of joy after learning firsthand how destructive they are. It doesn't feel good to be suspicious. We have learned not to doubt but to believe. It's hard to accept that a person who talks knowingly about religion, and who speaks disparagingly of negativity, could be destructive.

Time will usually show the fruit of a leader's life. First impressions and words, by themselves, don't say a lot about motives. Yet life has a way of writing its journal about the purposes of our hearts. The opposite of such fruit is seen in those who are more concerned about themselves than others. Such persons use people rather than love them. Their relationships are marked by a critical attitude, conflict, impatience, insensitivity, rudeness, selfishness, failure to keep promises, and failure to control their mouths, their anger, and their sexual desires. Such evidence of someone's spirit needs to be carefully listened to, regardless of his eloquence or ability to quote doctrine. With such fruit of the Spirit in mind, we are wise to ask the following questions about those we are relying on for leadership.

Are they marked by reverence and humility, or by brashness and arrogance?

Are they gentle, or demanding?

Do they themselves show respect for authorities (both friends and enemies), including their parents, and government?

Do they show respect and love for other leaders?

Do they promote personal discernment, growth, and maturity in their followers, or do they foster dependence and submission?

Do they exploit their members financially?

Is there evidence of sexual faithfulness, or have they left themselves open to question and rumor?

Do they lovingly and courageously tell the truth about mistakes, or do they only tell their group what they want to hear?

Do they sacrifice their own interests for the well-being of their group, or are they carried like kings on the shoulders of their followers?

Do they draw the attention and allegiance of their followers to their own path, or do they focus attention on themselves?

Do they lead by "throwing their weight around," or by information, encouragement, and example?

Are they willing to be viewed as brothers/sisters, or do they expect to be placed on a pedestal?

Is their group loved and hated because of their personal faith and allegiance to their religion, or because of the teachings and interpretations peculiar to the founder?

Do they keep their members by love, example, and teaching, or by making them afraid to leave the group?

Do they meet the qualifications of a spiritual overseer, or are they gifted people of questionable character?

These questions address issues rooted not merely in a leader's words but in his or her attitudes and actions. They help us to see that the issue is not just doctrine, but the spirit and fruit of the leader.

Church vs. Cult

By now you've realized that a group isn't necessarily good just because it's religious. "So," you ask, "how can I tell a good religious group from a bad one?" Here are some comparisons that demonstrate the difference between the right kind of church and a Cult.

The right kind of church stresses the authority of the individual. Cults often emphasize the authority of leaders who claim to have received additional messages from a deity.

The right kind of church is directed by persons who lead with strong but gentle example, instruction, and encouragement. The Cult leaders of often dominate by the strength of their personality, and by fear, rules, and threats.

The right kind of church teaches positive relationships within society. Some Cults require total withdrawal from society except for purposes of gaining money or converts.

The right kind of church encourages love and respect for family members, while recognizing that a family member's disregard for a chosen religion may produce division. Many Cults insist on contempt for nonmember parents regardless of what those parents think of the religion.

The right kind of church keeps its focus on strengthening the individual’s spirituality. Cults often shift that focus to the teachings of their leader.

The right kind of church shows respect even for those people and institutions they disagree with. Cults often encourage scorn and contempt for outsiders.

The right kind of church acts with integrity at all costs. Cults often operate by the rule that anything that protects and promotes the group is allowable.

The right kind of church requires its leaders to maintain a high standard of moral and sexual fidelity. Cults often allow their leader to live a sexually libertarian and promiscuous lifestyle that is encouraged throughout the group.

The right kind of church makes personal faith the sole requirement for acceptance. Cults almost always make additional requirements such as service and obedience.

The right kind of church teaches that giving is to be done on a voluntary basis. Cults often spell out the giving requirements, or demand that property be assigned to the group.

The right kind of church encourages members to judge for themselves whether they are being led in a manner consistent with their conscience. Cults often discourage or even forbid any analytical thought that criticizes the group’s practices or its religion.

The right kind of church recognizes and accepts all who confess a belief in the religion and uphold its doctrine. Cults often recognize only their own membership.

The right kind of church teaches ethical principles, which in turn encourage personal growth, thought, decisions, and maturity. Cults often create a sense of dependence, which in turn allows the leader to make all important decisions.

The right kind of church avoids manipulative techniques of persuasion, while believing in the ability of the Spirit to work in people's lives. Cults may use techniques of behavior modification.

The right kind of church is loved or hated because of its identification with its religion. Cults are usually loved or hated because of what they add to or subtract from that religion.

A Personal Story

I grew up in an abusive environment with no sense of an extended family. More than anything, I wanted to get away from my mother’s abuse, to be accepted by a loving family, and to eventually have a loving husband and family of my own. Although I was raised Pagan, religion by any name was never discussed. I assume that this was for my own protection. I do remember my mother’s stories of belonging to a Circle and holding séances when she was a teenager. She still talks about it. My father, who died when I was 16, also told me stories about Druids and Stonehenge. My parents divorced when I was seven years old and they both stopped practicing Paganism. I discovered Wicca during my freshman year of college. The first book I read on the subject was Janet and Stewart Ferrar’s The Witch’s Bible Complete. Reading that book brought back a flood of memories from my childhood. I had finally found my religious identity and it was liberating. I wasn’t raised with all the ceremonialism of Wicca, but what really stuck with me from the book was the striking similarity of Wicca to Freemasonry. I was exposed to Masonry throughout my life and was a Rainbow myself until I retired as a majority member at the age of 20. However, my mother would not allow me to participate. She was jealous because my father never allowed her to join the Eastern Star.

I dove head first into Wicca without question because I desperately wanted to recapture and relive my lost childhood. I also wanted to connect with my parents and have a positive relationship with them, even if that relationship was only imaginary. Like the child with an imaginary friend, I was an adult child with imaginary parents. I was only active in Rainbow for a year, so I missed out on seven year’s worth of rituals and fellowship with my peers. I really missed the structure of those rituals and the formal ritual dresses we all had to wear during initiations. There was a deep sense of pride in earning a color bar for perfectly reciting my lines. Being a Rainbow also gave me a sense of self-esteem because I belonged to an exclusive organization. A girl has to be Caucasian and be the daughter of a Mason to qualify for membership, but those are the only requirements. To this day, I dream about being a Rainbow and I still miss it. I firmly believed that Wicca would fill this void of spiritual and familial loneliness.

I practiced Wicca as a Solitary for five years before I became involved in a Wiccan church. I had met the church’s leaders and some of its members in 1995, but had little to do with them because of distance and transportation difficulties. They were nice and accepting, but I never really practiced with them until one Beltane in 1998. I attended a gathering close to where I live and I enjoyed it. I had a lot of fun dancing around the Maypole and participating in Circle. A year later, I was in my Junior year of college and making $1200/month. I was ready to get married and settle down. I started dating the church leaders’ son and everyone thought it was wonderful. He had another woman living with him at the time while he was still living with his parents. His dad called everyone into the living room for a family meeting. He told this other woman that she had to leave and that I was welcome there because I was family. Hearing that was like a dream come true. Knowing that I was loved and accepted by my boyfriend’s family, a Wiccan family, was everything I had hoped for. It was what I always wanted. Even one of his closest friends said that I was the best thing that had ever happened to him. I was deeply in love and whole heartedly believed that my boyfriend was in love with me. That is certainly what I wanted to believe. Within a few months, I moved in with my boyfriend and his family. I was living out all of my fantasies. I was finally part of a loving family and was a member of a Wiccan church.

That love and acceptance didn’t last very long. For 2 ½ years, I lived in an emotional hell. Let me just state for the record here that there were no drugs, alcohol, or violence involved. Everything that happened to me while living with my boyfriend was purely psychological in nature. However, the public humiliation and mind games I endured have left deep emotional scars that may never heal. My boyfriend’s parents divorced about the same time I moved in with him. His mother got to keep their metaphysical store and the church, and his father got the house. There were also seven other people besides my boyfriend and his father living in the home. Four of them were their cousins and two children. The other three were my boyfriend’s male friends. Typically though, there were several more people crashing there during weekends to play D&D. The cousins were kicked out about a year after I graduated from college, and I suddenly found myself in the role of domestic slave to a house full of woman-hating men. I was expected to work outside the home and purchase groceries for the household, plus pay rent. Since I couldn’t afford to pay rent, I was also expected to do all the cooking, cleaning, and laundry.

I was still friends with my boyfriend’s mother at the time and I was expected to tell his parents every thing about each other and their lives. I was caught in the middle of an “ex war”. Anytime I walked out of the bedroom, his father would catch me and unload his stress on me. My boyfriend’s father had the attitude that I was there for his personal enjoyment and entertainment. He had a habit of barging into our bedroom to catch me naked. When my boyfriend was gone, he barged in to ask for a cigarette and sat at the end of my bed and talked to me. He refused to exit the room so I could get dressed. I was not expected to have sex with him, but I do believe that’s what he wanted. He made sexist and obscene comments to me on a regular basis, which made me very uncomfortable. Through it all, my boyfriend never defended me and insisted that his father’s behavior was harmless. I eventually put a lock on our door which greatly offended his father. My boyfriend also had an open-door policy and allowed his friends to barge into our room any time day or night. Since all of his friends were also members of the church, they told his mother things about my interaction with her son that should've remained private; she repeated what she was told to everyone in the church.  His friends spread it around too. I was never allowed to have any privacy and was deprived of sleep. I didn’t graduate from college because of it; I had to drop a required math class because I couldn’t study there. My boyfriend told his friends, his mother and the other church members things to make them all hate me, which was brought up during circle and at gatherings. They threw private business up in my face and laughed at my reaction when I got upset. When I walked away from them, they threw a fit about that as well. I was not allowed to defend myself against the people who were attacking me. Every time I spoke out in my own defense, my boyfriend told me to “be nice,” even though they weren’t nice to me. This caused me to have anxiety attacks because I could never say or do anything right. I was not allowed to de-stress because his father and friends upset me at home, and everyone else upset me in the store or during circle. I never had a moment’s peace.

My idea of Paganism was different than what his mother taught and when I spoke out about the differences, they really began to hate me. They were very intolerant of my differences and tried to force me to conform to their beliefs. I was expected to accept them, but they refused to accept me. What turned me off the most to this group was the blatant sexuality, especially amongst the gay members. The group never informed me of its activities in advance. I soon realized that they enjoy an almost hedonistic lifestyle, which I find offensive. They told me that all Pagans behave that way, which isn’t true, and expected me to participate or witness sexual activities that were traumatic for me. Again, I couldn’t simply walk away in peace. They always made a big public issue of the fact that I couldn’t accept this kind of behavior. I felt like it was forced upon me and the more I spoke out against it, the more abusive they became. His mother also had knowledge of other groups in the area, but withheld that information from me so that I had to be with her church if I wanted to be involved with a Wiccan group. That was part of how she controlled me, and others, I’m sure. It gave the impression that her group was the only Wiccan group, and if anyone wanted to be part of a group, they also had to put up with her crap.

The situation got so bad that I stayed in bed all day and night.  I only rose when his father went to sleep; that was the moment I waited for and the time when he slept was short lived. This is how uncomfortable I felt around him. I trained myself to sleep through my hunger pains. From there, I developed anorexia which in turn elevated the depression and anxiety.  I later began starving myself as a means of attempting suicide. I went from 106 to 79 pounds in about a year. It nearly killed me, but no one seemed to care about my health. Everyone just wanted me gone so they wouldn’t have to see the result of their abuse. I was so stressed out and so malnourished that I couldn’t hold a job long enough to support myself, so I filed for social security. To make a long story short, I was kicked out of my boyfriend’s house in December of 2001 and had to sleep in my car for three weeks. I was receiving food stamps, but since I was sleeping in my car and had no way to store groceries, I offered to purchase all the food for my boyfriend’s mother’s Christmas dinner that year. I was told by her that I should not expect anything in return for my kindness and was not even thanked for the food. I slept in my car in a truck stop parking lot on Christmas night. I was fired from my job the day after Christmas and had no choice but to return home. I was devastated and heart broken, and suffering from severe clinical depression and anxiety attacks. I did receive my social security benefits and was later diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

One mark of a Cult is the power it holds over members whose better judgment tells them they need to get out. I was afraid of losing everything. "There's no other place to go." But when they say that, they're saying that there's no religious life outside the group. I was very angry for a while. The anger and depression that I went through were enormous. I can remember having suicidal thoughts and thinking that everything I wanted was gone. I thought if I left the group I would be leaving Paganism. I’m still Pagan, even though I haven’t practiced Wicca since I came home. It’s hard to support the religion that was used to hurt me.

For further reading on Cults, visit this website: Religious Movements: Cult Group Controversies

The Witche’s Voice website has an extensive list of groups organized by location. The group who abused me is also listed there, so please do your homework.

Move on to the next lesson, Magical Supplies -->

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