The rising popularity of the occult in western society
The word ‘occult’ has gained an infamous reputation in western society. Often tied to satanism and ‘mystic’ practices outside of western world comprehension, using the word occult will frequently garner confused looks and skepticism.
After all, the largest religion in Canada is Christianity – as declared by the 2011 National Household Survey completed by Statistics Canada. In the survey, 22.1 million (67.3 per cent) of the population said that they were Christian.
However, what does ‘occult’ really mean? How is it interpreted in comparison to “traditional” religions such as Christianity?
Speaking with Rebecca Plett, a professor in the Anthropology Department at Wilfrid Laurier University, the same theme was apparent – ‘occult’ being seen as problematic by society despite its actual definition.
“All occult means is ‘hidden’…so you know, there’s a number of practices that people do that could remain hidden” Plett stresses.
Instead of the word ‘occult’ Plett describes how anthropologists would prefer the term ‘New Religious Movement’ – a term that Britannica describes as “all-new faiths that have arisen worldwide over the past several centuries”.
As with the understanding of ‘occult’, New Religious Movements are seen as alternative religious practices that are outside of the “norm”. While not all of these movements are inherently harmful, many have the potential to be, as suggested by Plett.
“[New Religious Movements] pretty often start off as something rather idealistic and then they can turn into something a little bit more harmful, potentially.”
In addition, using the term New Religious Movement can be seen as “just a way to kind of put the focus on why people might be interested in joining these groups rather than the harm that they cause.” This is an important distinction considering the idealistic viewpoints pushed by many of these religions.
In a world reeling and rapidly shifting due to a global pandemic, it is unsurprising that New Religious Movements with their idealistic views and beliefs are appealing to many. Much of this growth can be seen among younger generations, especially on TikTok. The hashtag WitchTok on the platform has over 25.0 billion views, creators on the app using it to instruct their viewers on how to use crystals, pendulums and tarot.
As with many New Religious Movements, the application and use of these methods are not always harmful – many people seek comfort in them, obtaining answers to spiritual questions that assist in grounding them in reality. In many ways, this is comparable to the act of prayer – asking a spiritual being for guidance or help. Of course, ‘witches’ and those who practice formal religions like Christianity are treated differently by the media.
One interesting development in the representation of witches can be found in Scotland, where the Witches of Scotland are seeking “justice for people accused and convicted under the Witchcraft Act” between 1563 and 1736. With 1,104 supporters, the organization has been acknowledged by Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister. With recognition being granted for a movement like this, it is clear to see the impact that witches have had – also indicating what they have fulfilled for a certain sect of the population.
“What are people seeking for in that moment?” Plett questions, discussing the growth of New Religious Movements and why they form.
The continued growth and prevalence of ‘WitchTok’ and recognition of witches indicates the form of comfort and spirituality many are looking for during this tumultuous period – many unsure as to what their future holds due to the uncertain nature of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In addition to WitchTok, the pandemic has also and continues to inspire new movements to form – such as conspirituality, as mentioned by Plett. Of course, the term conspirituality refers to the “overlap of conspiracy theories with spirituality”, as defined by Wikipedia. An interesting podcast on the subject under the same name has been created by Derek Beres, Matthew Remski and Julian Mark Walker – a “journalist, cult researcher and philosophical skeptic” who discuss the “stories, cognitive dissonances, and cultic dynamics tearing through the yoga, wellness, and new spirituality worlds.” The podcast has over 29.1k followers on Instagram – demonstrating just how many people are interested in listening to presentations on the subject. The podcast can be listened to on conspirituality.net.
It must be noted that the creators of this podcast aren’t anthropologists directly studying the occult. The value of anthropological study, as described by Plett, is being able to take that “holistic view in looking at how practices have developed historically.” Further, Plett stresses the importance in including the human experience angle of studying the occult – focusing on what is going on sociologically, politically and economically in the current moment.
Looking at these aspects is crucial to understanding any aspect of the occult and how it relates to human experiences. It is important to ask “who are you rather than saying the a priori I know who you are” elaborates Plett.
While anthropologists must uphold this line of questioning rather than assumption, the general public should also adopt this line of thinking. Many are quick to judge ‘occult’ practices and organizations without taking the time to research them properly and learn more about how they have benefited individuals and society.
Key to note is the distinction of anthropology as an area of study. As the “study of humanity”, anthropology is key in understanding aspects surrounding the occult and its relation to human beings. As a distinct species with many different aspects, anthropology as the study of humanity has different subcategories such as physical anthropology, cultural anthropology and psychological anthropology. These distinctions and a proper understanding of the role anthropologists play is important, as they help to classify our understanding of our own species and why we adopt the practices we do.
Of course, being in the Western world, many are quick to judge without asking questions. Alternative or ‘occult’ practices are discredited. It is both easy and natural to be a skeptic – however, care should be taken when analyzing aspects of culture that may seem “alternative” or “illegitimate” in the eyes of the status quo. New lessons can be learned and those that research effectively to obtain new viewpoints will have a wider and greater understanding of the world.