The Scholars and the Goddess

What a curious article Charlotte Allen has written on Wicca, the Goddess movement, and neopaganism ("The Scholars and the Goddess," January Atlantic). She has gotten quite a bit right, though she gets entangled in the various threads of these movements. For instance, not all Wiccans worship a goddess, though certainly some do, and there is no official orthodoxy of belief, though there is some common ground, or at least a somewhat common reading list, which Allen hacks to pieces.

Allen sets up Gerald Gardner as the earliest source of these movements and then debunks him as a liar. Yet almost everyone who knows about Gardner, except possibly the most naive, also knows that Gardner probably made up the coven he says taught him about Wicca. This has been part of the conversation since the 1970s, and therefore has nothing to do, as Allen insists it does, with debunking books written in the 1990s. Gardner's sources are just not the point for modern followers; people derive religious satisfaction from the movement's community and rituals, which were greatly inspired by the second wave of the women's movement in the 1960s and 1970s.

Allen emphasizes the absence of historical evidence for the worship of "a single, archetypal goddess." This is not news. The Goddess movement is polytheistic, a religious movement that purposely flies in the face of male-dominated monotheisms such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

Most tellingly, Allen cites Matilda Joslyn Gage, misidentifying her as a "British feminist"—Gage was born and raised in upstate New York and, along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, was one of the founders of the women's suffrage movement.

Serinity Young
New York, N.Y.

Although Charlotte Allen interviewed me and others at great length for this article, she seems to have missed the core insights and perspective of Goddess spirituality.

Goddess religion is not based on history, archaeology, or belief in any Great Goddess past or present. Our spirituality is based on experience, on a direct relationship with the cycles of birth, growth, death, and regeneration in nature and in human lives. We see the complex, interwoven web of life as sacred, which is to say real and important, worth protecting, worth taking a stand for.

Starhawk
San Francisco, Calif.

Though she decries the use of myth, Charlotte Allen perpetuates the myth-history that Gerald Gardner was the founder of Wicca. Wiccans owe much to Gardner, but he was not Wicca's founder.

When we first articulated the spiritual philosophy of Wicca, in the late 1960s, many members of the Wiccan community examined and hotly criticized our work. We fine-tuned our writings to reflect the community's wishes. In 1974, at an international gathering in Minneapolis, Wicca was consensually defined as a nonjudgmental religion that honored all positive spiritual paths. That Minneapolis group might be considered the founders of Wicca.

S. Gavin Frost and Yvonne Frost
Co-founders
Church and School of Wicca
Hinton, W. Va.

Learning that "the 'ancient' rituals of the Goddess movement are almost certainly bunk" was quite a revelation when I read it on Christmas, a day of post-shopping rituals celebrating the birth of Jesus, a date that scholars believe is almost certainly bunk. The similarities between Wicca and Christianity, and the ability of believers in each to overlook facts in the pursuit of godliness, seem to establish Wicca as being little different from its colleagues in the religion business.

John K. Wilson
Chicago, Ill.

Charlotte Allen replies:

My article aimed to "debunk" not the religious validity of Goddess worship but its claim to be the ur-religion of Stone Age Europe. Christianity may be entirely false, but it's definitely 2,000 years old; Goddess spirituality, in contrast, may be entirely true, but it's not 35,000 or even 350 years old. If the Frosts are correct about the official birth of Wicca at a Minneapolis convention, it's not even thirty-five years old. Thus it is irrelevant (contra John K. Wilson) whether Jesus was actually born on December 25; the point is that there is solid historical evidence that Christians were celebrating his birthday on that date as early as the fourth century. But the historical and archaeological record simply does not support the conclusion that either Stone Age Europe or the Stone Age Near East ever celebrated the Great Goddess, much less that any Goddess rituals survived to modern times. In response to Starhawk and Serinity Young: I carefully pointed out that many Wiccans find their religion intensely meaningful and self-empowering, regardless of its lack of antiquity. As for the nationality of Matilda Joslyn Gage, Serinity Young is correct.

Indoctrinologists

Sally Satel ("The Indoctrinologists Are Coming," January Atlantic) has never written to the American Journal of Public Health disputing the results of the 1996 study I published therein exploring the hypothesis that experiences of racial discrimination might be related to risk of elevated blood pressure. She instead raises the absurd criticism that the study failed to control for salt intake. Exposing her lack of understanding of rigorous epidemiological methods, this "criticism" neatly misses the point that controlling for salt intake would be relevant only if salt intake were related to both the exposure of interest (racial discrimination) and the outcome of interest (blood pressure). Unless Satel has evidence that salt intake is associated with self-reported experiences of racial discrimination, there would be no basis for adjusting results for salt consumption.

Satel's disregard for scientific evidence, methodology, and reasoning is further revealed by her curious assertion that the federal government should "cease funding research into the effects of 'powerlessness', 'classism', and 'racism' on health; these are virtually impossible to study in quantitative fashion." Does she offer any evidence to back up her claim? No. Does she acknowledge the existence of substantive methodological review articles critically evaluating available measures for use in quantitative research on these topics? No. Does she contradict herself by stating, "It is not unreasonable to think that the stress of being a victim of discrimination could produce certain kinds of illnesses ... For example, the immune and hormonal systems and cardiovascular functioning can be affected by emotional states," and then asserting that no funds should be granted to explore such hypotheses? Yes. Satel's article is a textbook example of ideological doctrine crudely and erroneously applied to medicine and public health.

Nancy Krieger
Harvard School of Public Health
Boston, Mass.

The critics of medical inequality never say that every time a black woman gets sick, it's the fault of racist living or working conditions. And I'm sure that some women, Jews, and blacks have neglected their health. The difference is that my rich white friends who drink, drug, and crème brûlée themselves into clogged arteries have insurance plans that cover surgery—even those who did not exercise the "responsibility for preserving his or her own health" that Satel champions. That poor people lack jobs with insurance coverage is a result of inequality, not personal irresponsibility.

Satel insists that black patients don't need black doctors, and that getting more blacks into medical schools is unnecessary for this reason. But if I were black, I'm sure I would want to see a doctor I knew wasn't racist. As a woman, I'm glad I can see a female gynecologist. In the 1970s only about five percent of U.S. gynecologists were female. Today more than 30 percent are. The women's-health movement emerged precisely because women were tired of male physicians who treated their bodies as objects over which they, not the women, had expertise and authority. The women's-health movement fought for informed-consent laws to combat forced sterilization (which through the 1970s some physicians performed on women deemed unfit for parenthood). And, thanks to both social activists and the increasing number of female physicians, women who end up in hospital emergency rooms after being beaten by their male partners—a physical problem directly related to the social problem of gender inequality—are more likely to be assisted, by female and male practitioners, in a way that does not blame the victims but instead gets them the help and shelter they need.

Martha McCaughey
Associate Professor of Women's Studies
Virginia Polytechnic Institute
Blacksburg, Va.

Sally Satel replies:

Nancy Krieger says that attempting to measure salt intake would have been irrelevant to her evaluation of race and blood pressure. But because some of her analyses compared whites with blacks on the blood-pressure variable, it would make sense to correct for salt intake as one of many factors that might influence race-related differences. After all, in her original paper in the American Journal of Public Health (October, 1996) she reported taking alcohol consumption, smoking, body-mass index, and use of hypertension medications into account as "potential confounders." Such potential confounders were taken into account because, like salt, they could influence blood-pressure levels.

Even so, the salt issue was the least of my criticisms. Far more important was Krieger's invocation of "internalized oppression" as a possible explanation for the unexpected direction of some data (such as that black working-class men and women who reported no experiences of discrimination had higher blood-pressure readings than those reporting one or more). The problem with assuming that some subjects internalized oppression, and thus felt they deserved to be treated unfairly, is that it is not amenable to falsification and thus is not legitimate as a scientific hypothesis. It is simply a ready way to explain away data that do not fit Krieger's starting prediction that blood pressure and reports of discrimination would track.

I have no objection to careful research examining the relationship of race or stress (perceived or physiologically measured) to health outcomes. I am very doubtful, though, that doctrines such as racism and classism can be operationalized and thus studied in a rigorous fashion.

Finally, in the realm of clinical practice, it is encouraging to discover that patients are far less race-conscious than my critics. In the aggregate patients don't seem much concerned about the race of the person treating them: most want a competent physician of any race who can spend some time with them. A 1994 Commonwealth Survey of more than 2,700 patients found that "nationality/race/ethnicity" tied for twelfth out of thirteen possible factors that white, black, Hispanic, or Asian patients look for in a doctor.

Some African-Americans do indeed prefer a black doctor; I found some surveys (from the Kaiser Family Foundation and others) that put this number at 20 to 25 percent, proportionate to the percentage of all doctors who are black. In other words, one fourth of black patients (or about three percent of the general population)prefer black doctors, and three percent of all U.S. doctors are black. Of note, 12 to 17 percent of minority members interviewed in one large survey explicitly stated that they did not prefer a doctor of their own race.

New Mexico's Hidden Jews

The tone of "Mistaken Identity? The Case of New Mexico's 'Hidden Jews,'" by Barbara Ferry and Debbie Nathan (December Atlantic), troubles me. This essay clearly demonstrates the authors' sketchy understanding of New Mexico Indo-Hispano culture and of the phenomenon of crypto-Judaism. They have written about people who, for their own serious reasons, have reclaimed their Judaic roots. The authors ridicule Hispanos who claim a Sephardic legacy or who have accepted Judaism because of it. They insidiously discredit serious scholarly work by Texas Mexicans and New Mexican Indo-Hispanos who seek to understand the Sephardic Jewish legacy prevalent throughout the Southwest and its impact on religious and cultural identity.

In view of the tone of the essay, the reference to Richard Santos as an "amateur historian" is neither an accurate nor an objective description of a man who earns his livelihood as a research historian and writer. It is a putdown of a serious researcher with extensive information in his personal archives and a comprehensive and profound knowledge about crypto-Judaism in the historical Nuevo Reino de Leon. Ferry and Nathan present one valid scholar of crypto-Judaism—a graduate student working on a doctoral dissertation in folklore at the University of Indiana. The scholar's conclusion that residual Jewish practices and iconic remnants in New Mexico derive from the Church of God (Seventh Day) illustrate her simplistic understanding of New Mexico's complex religious and cultural history.

I also wish to correct an erroneous statement about my work. I have never speculated that early Hispano Presbyterian congregations were "secret synagogues for crypto-Jews who wanted to read the Bible." When I researched a statement made by a self-proclaimed heir of crypto-Judaism that a specific Presbyterian congregation in northern New Mexico was made up of crypto-Jews, I found it to be false and documented my findings in a working paper in 1991. I have done scholarly work on the possibility that early Hispano Protestant conversions are linked to the crypto-Jewish legacy. I have suggested that the crypto-Jewish sacred obligation to read the Bible daily, generally unavailable to the Catholic layperson, could have been a factor in conversions. Instead of citing my work and my findings, the authors analyze my motives for conducting research on early Hispano Protestant conversions, saying that I sought links to a Sephardic Jewish legacy "to reconcile [my] modern, Chicano identity with what [I think] of as [my] traditional, shamefully Anglo persona."

Tomas Atencio
Albuquerque, N. Mex.

The article by Barbara Ferry and Debbie Nathan is a gold mine of nonobjectivity.

1. The authors present some people in a demeaning manner and point out irrelevant characteristics. For example, they ignore the professional reasons why a well-respected educator and poet from northern New Mexico would be invited to address groups, and present her thus:"She began appearing at conferences where she would read poems she had written, in a high, didactic voice." They call attention to the "vaguely olive cast" of her skin and describe her eyelids as "slightly hooded." They present a distinguished, highly qualified historian, well known and respected for his research and careful evaluation, as an opportunistic academician. A folklorist is described as "middle-aged" and unhappy at not finding a university to teach at.

2. The writers demean the Hispano people and villages of northern New Mexico and their centuries-old culture, calling them "peasant." They further show ignorance of the legitimacy of the traditional art form of the santero and the hand-carved statues of saints called bultos, which the authors refer to as tourist kitsch. The work of these artists, in metal, wood, straw, and paint, are highly prized by folk-art museums and collectors.

3. Hispanos of northern New Mexico are called racist for allegedly denying Indian blood. In all my years of working throughout the state, I have heard only pride from the descendants of Spanish settlers for their Indian ancestors. The authors seemingly don't know about, or ignore, the alliance between the settlers and Pueblo Indians to resist Apache or Comanche raiders.

4. I was present at the El Paso conference of the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies, which the authors attended. They refer to the society in their article. They requested interviews from three of the presenters, including the educator-poet and the historian referred to above. But they didn't interview Rabbi Joshua Stampfer and Dr. Seth Kunin, both of whom were present and accessible. Rabbi Stampfer, a founder of the society, is known for his role in assisting the crypto-Jews of Belmonte, Portugal, in their efforts to get rabbinical supervision for their return to Judaism. Dr. Kunin, an anthropologist at Leeds University, has interviewed crypto-Jews about their families and customs. Were they not interviewed or reported on because what they have to say would counter the hypothesis of "mistaken identity" held by the authors of the article?

Dolores J. Sloan
Santa Fe, N. Mex.

Barbara Ferry and Debbie Nathan reply:

We meant no disrespect to Richard Santos; we called him an amateur historian because he does not have an advanced degree in history.

On the issue of crypto-Jews and the Hispano Presbyterian Church, the nature of the disagreement is somewhat elusive. We didn't mean to suggest that in Atencio's view, the Hispano Presbyterian Church functioned literally as a synagogue. But Atencio has indeed raised the possibility, as he does again in his letter, that the Hispano Presbyterian Church might have possessed characteristics that would have proved attractive to persons with a crypto-Jewish background, and that crypto-Jews may have been present in some congregations in significant numbers.

Dolores Sloan decries a lack of objectivity, and she will probably find any protestations unpersuasive. It should at least be noted that Sloan is a co-editor of SCJS's newsletter and a conference planner for the group.

We did in fact interview Seth Kunin, but found his work to be not germane, because he studies how people construct their identities as crypto-Jews, rather than whether there is any historical or factual basis for the construction.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.