The Meaning of Witchcraft by Gerald Gardner provides some interesting insights into the founding of modern Wicca. Gardner begins each chapter by introducing a feature of witchcraft, paganism, or the occult, but he avoids fitting any of those concepts into a unified framework for Wiccan theology. Instead, the concept becomes a springboard for winding stories that weave witchcraft into history and folklore. While there is an implied theology that one can infer from ritual forms, Gardner devotes his writing to seeding the historicity of a continuous witchcraft tradition rather than establishing pagan epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics.

Much of The Meaning of Witchcraft contributes to the Wiccan founding myth by presenting interpretive evidence of a continuous witchcraft tradition existing in secret alongside and being persecuted by Christian institutions. Each narrative frames a belief about witchcraft, traces evidence of that belief in history, and interprets symbols, events, and motivations to support the framing. The resulting digressions suffer from all of errors Gardner inherits from discredited folklore theories such as the Murray Thesis and other frameworks no longer widely accepted. Many later Wiccan and Pagan writers follow a similar pattern in their books.

Gardner neglects any pagan account of epistemology or metaphysics in favor of a loose collection of themes. There is emphasis on communion with the God and Goddess through ritual without an account of how one has knowledge of the God and Goddess. Karma anchors ethics without any normative theory that defines good. Reincarnation supplies an answer for the afterlife, but Gardner does not supply an ontology that explains that nature of whatever provides continuity between lifetimes.

In the absence of these accounts, the Pagan community embraces a loose federation of beliefs supplied by European occult traditions, Asian religious traditions, and cradle religions. Fusion with the New Age contributed additional layers as Wicca crossed the Atlantic Ocean. In this unstructured tradition, Pagan practice has more consistency than Pagan belief.

Examining the principles underlying belief through philosophical inquiry or scholarship in history, anthropology, or archeology risks challenging the same brittle foundations as the Wiccan founding myth. Tolerance of diverse beliefs allows the community to unite across lineages and define a pluralist religious community. Pagan pluralism itself provides a refuge for inquisitive seekers who feel confined by overly rigid traditions.

On the other hand, the absence of direction on what Paganism is rather than what it should not be leaves a seeker at the mercy of whatever resources they find. A local community must find its ways of discouraging abusive behavior and ensuring that uninformed seekers have access to guidance. In this capacity, pluralism limits the community’s response because it motivates a reluctance to challenge brittle and self-serving beliefs. While the Wiccan Rede would appear to provide this standard, in the absence of a normative theory to define harm, its application becomes a matter of interpretation.

Is the absence of a unifying and prescriptive theology a problem for modern paganism? The Buddhist tradition is carried by a wealth of lineages not formally organized but all tracing themselves back to the Buddha. Lineages do monitor their teachers by endorsing teachers and enforcing codes of behavior. All Buddhist traditions have a robust tradition of ethical scholarship, extending back to the Pali Canon. One may hesitate to pass judgment on incomplete information, but a Buddhist can explain very clearly the boundaries of moral behavior so that an individual can draw correct inferences.

Pagan covens lack a unified ethical tradition. One may derive ethics from a combination of acculturated norms, general principles, and personal gnosis, but there is no shared framework to provide consistency of judgment. While all religious organizations are vulnerable to corruption and abusive individuals, mature traditions have developed means for mitigating those harms by warning newcomers and censuring abusers. To mature in this way, modern paganism needs a robust ethical framework that defines harm while embracing pluralism. The framework should answer:

• What actions, intentions, or traits constitute harm or facilitate harm?
• What responsibilities do we have toward one another?
• How do we come to know morality?
• How are moral judgments formed and justified?

Addressing these questions would give greater weight to the Wiccan Rede, resist spiritual bypasses that circumvent moral introspection, and discern abuse from difference of opinion.