Photo by Tom Lee, Flickr CC

If you like Halloween, you know that witches are a popular costume choice and decoration this time of year. But the history of witches involves much more than bubbling cauldrons and flying broomsticks. Social science shows us that witchcraft has a long history of empowering marginalized groups, like women and sexual minorities, who question more traditional religious practices.   

While popular images of witches often focus on magic spells, brooms, and pointed hats, witchcraft and other forms of neo-paganism have historically been used by women to push back against male-dominated religions. More traditional, hierarchical religions like Christianity and Islam often place women in a subordinate role to men, and research finds that many women are drawn to witchcraft and other alternative spiritualities because they emphasize female empowerment, embodied rituals, and sexual freedom.
People who practice witchcraft and neo-paganism typically see sexuality and gender as key sites for social transformation and personal healing, pushing back against the Christian idea that sex and bodies are sinful. Since neo-paganism values sexual freedom and sexual diversity, LGBTQ folks and people practicing polyamory often feel a sense of belonging that they don’t find in other religious spaces.
This has also been true for young adults. In general, young adults practice religion and spirituality differently than do older generations. For example, millennials are the least likely to participate in traditional religious institutions or identify with one single religious belief system, but many still desire some combination of spirituality and community. The increase in portrayals of witchcraft and other neo-pagan religions in popular media has exposed younger generations to these communities, and research finds that teens are more often drawn to these alternative spiritual practices as a means of self-discovery and community, rather than the promise of magical powers.