Belief and Identity in Late Modernity: Transcending Disciplinary Boundaries University of Sussex, Saturday 8 November 2008 10-4: 30 pm

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Belief and Identity in Late Modernity:

Transcending Disciplinary Boundaries
University of Sussex, Saturday 8 November 2008 10-4:30 pm
A Study Day organised by ESRC Postdoctoral Fellow, Dr Abby Day, and Prof. Simon Coleman, Department of Anthropology, University of Sussex, in conjunction with the BSA Sociology of Religion Study Group.

Paper Summary

Mass Media and Religious Identity: a case study of young Witches
Douglas Ezzy, Department of Sociology, University of Tasmania, Australia and Helen A. Berger, Department of Anthropology, West Chester University USA


Drawing on interviews with ninety young people who have become Witches we explore the role of the mass media’s influence on identity formation and maintenance. Witchcraft is a late modern religion that is highly individualistic and many young people report they become a Witch without any interaction with other Witches. The rapid growth of interest in this religion among the young since the Craft was first shown provides an important example of the mass media’s role in formation of contemporary religious identity. We argue that representations of Witchcraft in the mass media, along with other cultural trends such as environmentalism, feminism, and individualism, and cultural resources such as books, Internet sites, and magazines, provide a mediated form of social interaction that sustains the plausibility of Witchcraft as a religion. It also helps the young to develop and legitimate their beliefs and practices and develop their Witchcraft persona.

The Concept of Belief

First, Witchcraft is not a creedal religion. Witches rarely ask each other what they believe. Beliefs about the deity may vary from people who see them as purely symbolic or natural processes, to those who see them as symbolic of internal thoughts or “energies”, to those who see them as real beings. This diversity is usually tolerated, and even celebrated. Instead, the primary focus is on a practice of self-transformation. Witchcraft revolves around ritual practice and the experiences associated with this practice.

Second, Witchcraft is duo-theistic or polytheistic, making use of deities from various pantheons (Celtic, Hindu, Egyptian and Greek are common). While individuals and covens may have particular deities that they regularly work with, pluralism and acceptance of diversity in belief and practice tends to be the rule.
Third, young Witches are highly individualistic. They typically develop a substantial proportion of their understanding of the religion as a product of reading books and surfing Internet sites. Interaction with older practitioners is the exception, and when it does occur, tends to take place after an identity as a “Witch” has already been well established. As such, young Witches learn a high degree of self-justified discrimination between various sources and authorities. Their loci of authority is internal, and they will only commit to a belief or practice if it makes sense to them.

We interviewed 90 young Witches, 30 in Australia, 30 in the US, and 30 in the UK. We recruited through Internet advertisements, personal networks, Pagan organisations, and snowballing. The interviews lasted approximately one hour each, were transcribed and analyzed thematically. We are both sociologists, and this methodology reflected the methodology of most qualitative studies in our discipline. The focus of our study on meaning and self-identity made a qualitative methodology highly appropriate. The fact that both of us had previously published books on contemporary Witchcraft that were well regarded by Witches made for easier recruitment of participants than might have otherwise been the case given the hidden, stigmatised, and highly individualistic nature of Witchcraft.

Implications for the study of belief and identity

Our study of teenage Witches makes clear that religious belief, particularly in the West, is increasingly shaped by mass marketed, and mass mediated information including movies, television programs, the Internet, books and magazines. Sociologically, this is very significant. Religious identity cannot be understood separately from processes that are shaping more general culture, including the mass media and the Internet.

Second, we argue in our book Teenage Witches (Rutgers University Press, 2007), that the individualistic nature of the belief and practice does not lead to a self-centred narcissism, but rather opens up the possibility of a concern for the “other” through an orientation to personal authenticity.

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