In my last post, I talked about how to recognize if a group is a cult or is using cult techniques to control its members. As I pointed out in that post, cults can be based on any ideology — including pagan spirituality or secular witchcraft.
So now that we know how to identify the bad teachers and groups, how do we find communities, teachers, and resources that are safe, healthy, and helpful?
Obviously, the first step is to compare any teacher, group, or author to Steven Hassan’s BITE model (the four-part model of Behavior, Information, Thought, and Emotional control used by cults to control members) and see if it matches up with their behavior — anyone who employs the BITE model is not someone you want to involve in your spiritual journey.
Beyond that, here are some more things that you SHOULD look for in a teacher, author, or group:
1. A safe teacher, author, or group prioritizes the individuality, independence, and autonomy of every student, reader, or member.
A good teacher can share information and even their own personal experiences without telling students how to think or what to believe. The same goes for authors. Safe teachers and authors encourage students/readers to use their own judgement to decide if what is being taught is right for them.
Likewise, a healthy group may be founded on a common belief or practice, but group members recognize that each person’s experiences within that framework are going to be different.
Be wary of groups with imbalanced power dynamics. If a group has a clear hierarchy (official or unofficial) with some members getting special treatment, ask why. Some pagan groups do perform ordination, and it’s normal for students pursuing ordination to get extra training or coaching from leaders. But even then, they should not be treated as if they were superior to other group members.
Avoid groups that put pressure on new members to make public commitments, such as baptism, initiation, or ordination. Again, some groups do offer these, and that’s perfectly fine. What isn’t fine is new group members being pressured to make major commitments before they feel ready for them. In groups that offer these commitments, they should be available for students who feel ready for them, but should not be treated like the default or like they are mandatory.
2. Safe teachers, authors, and groups are honest and transparent about where they get their information.
If you’re considering buying a book on witchcraft, paganism, or any other spiritual topic, perform this quick test before you do: flip to the back of the book and look for the “Resources” section. In a well-researched book, this section will be several pages long. In a really good book, it will include sources from non-pagan, non-witch authors, like historians and scientists. If the book doesn’t have a resources section, or if the resources section is especially short, don’t bother with it.
Likewise, when you’re attending a class or group meeting, teachers and leaders should be open about where they got their information. If a teacher doesn’t specify where their information is coming from, don’t be afraid to ask them — if they can’t answer off the top of their head or they dodge the question, you may want to consider finding a different teacher.
Don’t be afraid to ask teachers and group members for book recommendations! Most witches and pagans do a lot of reading, and will have no problem giving you a list of their favorite resources.
If you notice that a teacher or group is only using books from one or two authors, that’s a red flag. This goes double if a teacher or author only uses or references books that they wrote themselves.
If a teacher or group relies heavily on information from a single author, do your own research into that author’s legitimacy. For example, Silver Ravenwolf was a very popular Wiccan author in the ’90s and early 2000s, and a lot of older witches still recommend her books to newcomers — but a quick Google search will reveal that Ravenwolf is extremely controversial and has been accused of knowingly spreading misinformation in her books. If a teacher or group relies heavily on Ravenwolf or other authors that have been publicly exposed as frauds, you’ll want to take what they teach with several grains of salt.
(For the record, the points in this post are based on the work of cult researchers like Steven Hassan, Margaret Singer, and Luna Lindsey. See? It’s not that hard.)
3. Safe teachers, authors, and groups are open to analysis and criticism.
If you really want to know an author’s integrity, look at how they respond to their negative reviews. Someone who accuses those who disagree with them of being ignorant and small-minded, or of “persecuting” them is not someone you want to rely on in your spiritual journey.
Likewise, if you’re considering joining a group, pay attention to how they talk about ex-members. A healthy group is able to acknowledge that what they offer isn’t for everyone, and doesn’t take it personally when someone leaves.
A good teacher will lead class discussions that encourage questions from students. Avoid teachers who belittle students for asking “stupid” or “irrelevant” questions, or who refuse to answer questions on certain topics. You should also be wary of teachers who use canned answers that don’t really address what was being asked.
4. A safe teacher, author, or group leader is qualified, approachable, and down to earth.
Determining someone’s qualifications gets a little tricky in witchy and pagan communities, because many of these traditions don’t have a formal clergy, and I have yet to see an accredited school offering degrees in magical theory. In some cases, the only qualification a person can have is being an experienced practitioner.
But there are some cases where you can — and should! — ask someone for their credentials. If someone uses a title like “High Priestess,” “Elder,” or “Reverend,” make sure they were ordained by a legitimate religious organization. (Even if a group isn’t legally classified as a church, you can still research them and their reputation.) If someone is teaching a formal system like Reiki, they should be certified to teach in that system. Any time someone claims to have a certain title, status, or certification, ask to see the paperwork to prove it.
A good teacher is accessible. If they charge for their services, the price should be reasonable for the service being offered. It’s entirely appropriate for someone who is putting a lot of time and energy into teaching a class to expect payment, but it isn’t appropriate to overcharge or exploit people.
A good teacher, author, or group leader is down to earth and approachable. They don’t claim to be anything more or less than a human being looking to share their knowledge and experience with others.
Avoid anyone who claims to be an incarnated deity, angel, demon, or other non-human figure, or who claims to be the spouse, consort, or child of such a being. Avoid anyone who claims to be a reincarnated master or historical figure. Be very skeptical of anyone who claims to be on a unique divine mission or have been “chosen” by a higher power. These are all common tactics used by cult leaders to gain respect and worship from their followers.
If a teacher, author, or other authority figure asks to be “paid” for their services with sexual favors or says you have to have sex with them as a form of initiation, LEAVE IMMEDIATELY AND NEVER LOOK BACK. Any person who tries to coerce you into sex is an attempted rapist, and you need to get away from them as soon as possible, no matter what title or authority they have.
5. A safe author, teacher, or group believes in science and history and does not try to discredit them.
Contrary to popular belief, you can have faith in magic, divinity, or some other cosmic force and still believe in science. Paganism and witchcraft are no less compatible with science than any other spiritual practice.
Avoid anyone who tries to twist history to make themselves look more sympathetic. Any author, teacher, or group who talks about “the Burning Times” or claims that there was a unified “witchcraft cult” in ancient Europe is either a liar or willfully ignorant. These things never happened. We know they never happened because there is no historical evidence to support them and a lot of historical evidence that disproves them.
Likewise, pseudoscience should not be taught as fact. You may hear people talk about how your emotions vibrate at different frequencies which have the power to positively or negatively affect your life — what they won’t tell you is that these ideas come from a book about political theory (Power vs. Force by David R. Hawkins) and have no scientific evidence to support them. Or, you may hear people say that psychoactive medications block your psychic abilities — how can this be true, when most medications are derived from the same plants and herbs that witches have been using for healing magic for centuries? Most of these conspiracy theories have little to no backing in the scientific or witchcraft communities, and they have no place in a spiritual learning environment.
Most importantly: If YOU feel uncomfortable, then it is not the right group for YOU.
A group doesn’t have to be cultish or unhealthy to be a bad fit for you and your spiritual path. Ultimately, both witchcraft and paganism are highly intuitive, and you will have to do what feels right for you.
Leave a Reply