By Adam Dahmer–
The approach of Halloween brings to mind an anecdote that underscores a social problem sometimes evident on our campus.
I once knew a doctor who worked in a hospital emergency room. One Halloween, after treating a patient dressed as a witch, the doctor complimented her on the detail of her costume. To her surprise, the patient became indignant. The woman explained angrily that she was Wiccan, and that the doctor’s misidentification of her regalia as a Halloween costume was an almost unforgivable insult. She then proceeded to curse the physician, in every sense of the word, before storming away.
The woman’s indignation troubles me for a number of reasons. It is, of course, ungracious that she berated a physician from whom she had willingly received beneficial medical treatment, and presumptuous to think that on Halloween night, a reasonable person would conclude that someone dressed as a stereotypical witch was, in fact, an actual practitioner of magic—or magick, as some prefer.
The thing that bothers me most, however, is that the patient’s outburst shows a general lack of knowledge about her own religion. The typical attire of a Halloween witch—with the iconic conical hat, frayed dress, and pointed shoes—is an invention of pop culture. Real Wiccans purportedly draw their inspiration from the actual pagans of European antiquity, none of whom are likely to have worn ragged black dresses and pointy hats for any purpose, ritual or otherwise.
In light of this fact, a Wiccan attempting to “reclaim” a witch’s Halloween costume as religious regalia is acting no less absurd than a person of Chinese descent who upholds the fortune cookie, a Californian culinary innovation, as a dietary staple of her own culture.
People of various religions, and those without religion, tend to be eager to condemn those whom they perceive as ignorant or intolerant of their religious practices, and to point out the flaws in religious philosophies to which they do not adhere. At the same time, they themselves often have little understanding of the basic tenets of their own belief systems.
This tendency toward righteous anger in the absence of substantive religious knowledge makes theological discourse between the adherents of different faiths adversarial and pointless, with what should be polite discussions disintegrating into shouting matches that make enemies of potential friends, and convince no one of the merits of any philosophy.
The earlier-mentioned example of this phenomenon involves a Wiccan, but members of various religious denominations often act similarly. Many a Christian has promoted biblical morality without considering the discrepancies in the doctrines advocated by Christ and the Old Testament prophets, and having never examined the varying historical and political contexts in which the books of the Bible were written and compiled.
Similarly, a great many atheists condemn Muslims for violent Jihad, Buddhists for sectarian violence in Southeast Asia, and Christians for the barbarity of the Crusades and the suppression of pagan religion, without noting the appalling extent to which free thought was curtailed, and dehumanizing dogmatism imposed, by the atheist idealists of the former Soviet Union.
Religious intolerance as a result of the proliferation of ignorance and the lack of introspection has arguably been the norm for much of human history.
However, in an age where information on practically any religion is cheaply accessible to the masses, and in a country where religious openness is fully legal, of not always encouraged, then there is no reason for anyone not to have at least a basic understanding of his or her own religious belief system, or to dismiss anyone else’s as inferior without having given a thorough and—to the extent possible—unbiased examination.