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I began using occult practices—drawing salt circles around the perimeter of my home and burning candles for protection—when a devastating gynecological health condition baffled my doctors. I had the symptoms of a urinary tract infection, but no medically discernible infection. I took half a dozen rounds of powerful antibiotics that only made my symptoms worse. My family had been lucky to escape getting Covid before the vaccine became available, but the anxiety of those early days of the pandemic compounded with my mysterious illness. The debilitating pelvic pain prevented me from sleeping, eating, or driving. I worried I’d entered a mental and physical crisis I’d never recover from.

Before converting to a charismatic form of evangelical Christianity during my mid-20s, I relied on occult, or “New Age,” practices for support in both physical and spiritual matters. However, I’d subsequently given that up as a Christian. Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live, warns Exodus 22:18; the church community I joined interpreted verses like these as condemning any contemporary occult practice. Now in my mid-40s, after months of unanswered Christian prayers for healing and ineffectual doctor visits, I was willing to try anything.

I began to explore alternative medicine and sought practitioners who took my changing female body into account, not just in childbirth or pregnancy, but through the hormonal changes of midlife. I sought a spiritual practice that did the same. I practiced meditation and worked with a somatic therapist; I read tarot and hired an astrologer; I consulted Spiritualist mediums and tried to contact deceased loved ones; I experimented with a modern adaptation of what religion scholar Cynthia Eller calls feminist spirituality. This was a practice popularized during the second wave of the feminist movement, which centered the idea of the Divine Feminine and the three stages of a woman’s life: Mother, Maiden, and Crone. Ultimately, I was drawn to a spirituality that sought to empower women through magic and ritual, a spirituality that is sometimes called “witchcraft.”

Around the same time, in late 2021, 24-year-old Jesse Sweigert began experimenting with tarot cards, crystals, and astrology. This was a year after they had come out as nonbinary and their marriage to a male evangelical pastor ended in divorce. I met Jesse at a reading at a bookstore I gave for my memoir about leaving evangelicalism, shortly after they stopped participating in the conservative Baptist church that was pastored by their then-husband. Like me, and many of their peers, Jesse’s deconstruction of faith began in earnest during the Trump era.

“When I left my marriage and came out, nobody from our church contacted me,” Jesse told me recently via Zoom. It was in that vacuum, without a church community for the first time in more than a decade, that they began exploring witchcraft.

Historically, the word witchcraft conjures images of a bent-nosed crone in a pointy hat hovering over a cauldron. This depiction evolved over time but can be linked to the antisemitic rhetoric of early modern Europe. Today, witchcraft, as it is practiced in America primarily among white people, is a catch-all term for a variety of neo-pagan rituals and practices inspired in part by Wicca, a 20th-century nature-based religion started by an English civil servant and nudist named Gerald Gardner. Though the claims of early Wiccans possessing an unbroken line of practice stretching back to an idealized pre-Christian past have been largely debunked, witchcraft researcher and anthropologist Helen Cornish writes, “modern witches continue to find new ways to connect to the deep past.”

That deep past informs the witchcraft of Nick Dickinson. Dickinson, whose pronouns are he/she/they/fae, goes by the online moniker “Urban Wizard” and is a professional witch based in Salem, Mass. He is not Wiccan but defines witchcraft as any “non-normative spiritual practice.” Witchcraft, according to Dickinson, is characterized by three practices. The first is spirit work or divination, working with spiritual entities or the spirits of the dead. Spirit flight is a meditation and visualization practice that moves the witch through real and imagined worlds to influence events and outcomes according to the will of the practitioner. An alliance with plants or poisons for ritual and spell work is the third element that Dickinson believes is essential to the craft. Think of the herbs and plants our proverbial witch is crumbling into her cauldron.

I’ve participated in a few of Dickinson’s online classes as part of “Circe Academy,” named for the Greek goddess of witchcraft; the class is part of an online school he/she created for the teaching of “Feral Greek Witchcraft.” Dickinson grew up in a Greek American Orthodox family.  An early exposure to Greek gods and goddesses helped him deal with the brutal bullying he experienced growing up as a queer femme boy in rural New England.

“I was on the receiving end of slurs at a very young age, before I even knew what those slurs meant,” Dickinson explained. “In a Christian-based culture that uses violent anti-LGBTQ rhetoric…if alongside that religion you have other options, it makes sense to turn to [the deities of your ancestors] for help.”

The goddess Athena became a kind of mentor to Dickinson during those experiences of bullying. According to mythology, Athena was supposed to have been born a boy but was instead born a girl.

“As a femme child,” Dickinson said, “it made sense to look for a gender-bending deity to connect with.” Athena is also a protective deity, often pictured in battle armor, and as Dickinson grew up and learned more about magic and spell work, she became a natural ally.

Childhood religious experiences—both positive and negative—play a large role for many self-identified witches. For Kieu Dang, known online as the “Halfass Witch,” their family’s deep roots in Pentecostal Christianity had a profound impact on their life today as a professional spirit medium.

“The Old Testament is a shopping list for magical offerings,” Dang told me. “The book of Psalms is a spell book…Christianity [can be seen as] a magical spiritual practice throughout history.”

Dang, who is now 27, taught Sunday school at their family’s church before discovering tarot in college and embracing neo-paganism. Though they identify as a former Christian, they believe it’s vital for those exploring witchcraft to see spiritual gifts, like praying in tongues, miraculous healing, or words of knowledge, as viable outside the context of the church.

Pentecostal/Charismatic Christianity has traditionally emphasized these supernatural phenomenon and today has more than 644 million adherents worldwide. Dang’s popular and free online class “Sunday School with Spice” is a way for former Christians to look at the Bible from a more inclusive perspective, as what they call “a magical intuitive text.”

Sweigert and Dang are part of a growing community of former conservative Christians embracing witchcraft, a loosely defined form of non-patriarchal occult spirituality expressly forbidden by their former churches. They’re also part of the 29 percent of American adults whom the Pew Research Center identifies as “nones”— agnostics, atheists, or those whose religious affiliation is “nothing in particular.” This number is 13 percentage points higher than it was back in 2007.

I don’t identify as a “none.” I remain an Episcopalian, a Christian tradition I was confirmed in after I left evangelicalism. However, I identify with the impulse to look beyond Christianity’s borders for spiritual community. I understand the desire of Sweigert and Dang to create an informal practice that not only represents their inclusive values but also sees a link between spirituality and social activism.

Unlike other earlier feminists, many witches today are increasingly committed to decolonizing the practice and are wary of the rampant cultural appropriation of Black and brown folk magic. One of the services Dang offers as the Half Ass Witch is to help new witches connect with the magic of their ancestors rather than looking to pop cultural representations of exploited cultures for inspiration. For me, that has meant starting with Jewish magic, the magic of my father’s lineage, and slowly expanding from there.

The modern practice of witchcraft among women, queer people, and people of color often resists drawing an irrevocable line between religion and magic. Yvonne Chireau, a professor at Swarthmore College and author of Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition, argues that 19th-century Conjure—the African-American tradition of healing and harming — and Christianity, “were historically proximal and often intersected in practice if not in thought.”

“Magic as a term refers to the beliefs and actions by which human beings interact with an invisible reality,” Chireau writes. “Religion is a viable system of ideas and activities by which humans mediate the sacred realm. In some African American spiritual traditions’ ideas about magical and religious practice can enclose identical experiences.”

Today, Chireau is interested in finding spaces where the two traditions might make accommodation for one another; this was the subject of a recent talk on spiritual healing that she gave at Yale University. She sees “digital born” Black women as spiritual entrepreneurs and “free magical agents,” many embracing  a wildly eclectic witchcraft while not abandoning Christianity.

“I see many people not leaving the [Christian] tradition but leaving the church, and still using the Bible for [magical work,]” Chireau explains. She sees Black Americans embracing “Africana religions,” a term describing the mix of African, Black Diasporic, Black Caribbean and other religious and magical practices that “intersect with and influence black American religious traditions.”

I recently spoke to Stephen C. Finley, a professor at Louisiana State University, at a private conference on the confluence of the UFO phenomenon and the supernatural. His forthcoming book, which will be published by Duke University Press in November, is on the Nation of Islam and explores, in part, this religion’s connection to esotericism.

“There has never been this clear-cut line between magic and religion,” Finley told me. “African Americans use all kinds of things and all kinds of sources to build a meaningful world for themselves.”

Finley recalled a Black colleague whose mother went to church on Sunday and a tarot reader on Tuesday, and a Baptist Aunt who instructed him to burn a green candle to increase his wealth. But Finley also noted that there’s deep resistance to these ideas. To expose these integrated practices developed to offer Black people protection in a violent world is to open them up to critique or ridicule. They remain hidden for those reasons, he said. The line between magic and religion is upheld, at least in public; in private, spiritual practice is often more complicated.

Though I identify as white, my own spiritual practice is similarly complicated. The line between what I considered witchcraft and religion blurred when I began to use tarot cards, spell work, and astrology alongside Christian prayer to try to heal and understand my body. I continued to seek medical answers as well, and I was eventually referred to a pelvic floor therapist who quickly identified my symptoms as related to the hormonal drop that occurs during perimenopause. Her solution was simple: a prescription for estrogen cream and a recommendation to take Black Cohosh, a well-studied plant-based supplement that eases the symptoms of hormonal shifts.

My therapist’s solution brought to mind the alliance with plants that Nick Dickinson explained as integral to much of witchcraft. I began to work with other herbs and plants as well. I learned that mugwort, for example, a plant that witches connect with the Greek goddess Artemis, has positive hormonal benefits. As I get older, I’m learning to embrace complicated practices in life as well as in spirituality. Maybe the complications, the syncretism that is so threatening to all kinds of orthodoxies—evangelicalism and otherwise—is the point for modern witches.

Witchcraft remains fraught for many Christians exploring it. But there also exists a pride in witchcraft’s perennial reputation as the practice of those who are othered by mainstream culture because of their gender, sexual identity, or race.

“The witch is always other,” Dickinson told me. “I think you can make a fair argument for the witch being queer, and I don’t necessarily mean LGBTQ or gay. But queer in the sense that the witch stands out from what is considered culturally normal.”


Cameron Dezen Hammon is the author of This Is My Body: A Memoir of Religious and Romantic Obsession.