I’m Laura Carl and I am a self-identified New Thought Witch.
Unfamiliar with the term? That’s alright, I’m pretty sure I invented it.
Before I was introduced to New Thought (specifically Unity), I had followed the path of a witch. I can’t say that I ever subscribed to Wicca because I never bought into the concept of God as a being. Instead, I was (and am) a pantheist: God is everything and everything is God.
At this point in my life, I had already performed several rituals (spells) and was well-versed in Tarot. I also had a fantastic collection of crystals, had a decent knowledge of herbs, and was Master Attuned in Reiki. Like several spiritual-but-not-religious folk, I picked and chose what I wanted to incorporate into my practice from the smorgasbord of world religions.
When I was introduced to New Thought principles and traditions, I quickly saw the similarities to my own theology and began to incorporate them into my practice. For example, I would turn an affirmation into a sigil and carve it into a candle. Or instead of reading the Bible, I would read a spread from my Tarot deck and metaphysically interpret it. New Thought became such a big part of me that I decided to become a minister and began to study at Unity.
What it means to Decolonize Faith
One day, my mentor and dear friend told me about the concept of decolonizing religion, specifically decolonizing Christianity. Initially, I felt relieved that I had already done that. Though raised Roman Catholic, the misogynistic ways of Christianity had little effect on me at this point. I could speak at length about how Christianity stole the wonderful traditions of Yule and Ostara, not to mention how they erased the Divine Feminine and shoved puritanical beliefs down their followers’ throats.
But then I started to think a little further.
I am of European descent and therefore have lived a life of privilege that I probably cannot comprehend. My ancestors likely colonized in some shape or form. I had an aching feeling that I needed to decolonize my spirituality.
I began my journey by reading an article called Cultural Appropriation in Contemporary Neopaganism and Witchcraft by Kathryn Gottlieb from the University of Maine. Gottlieb and the Cambridge Dictionary defined cultural appropriation: as “The act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.”
Feeding from the Buffet of Religion
Cultural appropriation shows a level of entitlement that is inherent in Western culture. It conveys the message “that the colonizer gets to decide what is important, what they are allowed to take, and what other people should feel about their taking it.”
It got worse. Gottlieb also stated, “Since the majority of modern witches and neopagans are white … many modern witches have to reconcile their status as members of the most privileged race in most societies with their tendency to identify with the oppressed.” I can safely say that I had never felt more called out in my life than when I read this article for the first time. Gottlieb went on to explain why cultural appropriation happens so frequently.
“Treating the religions of the world as if they were a religious buffet there for our pleasure is a colonial way of thinking.”
— Kathryn Gottlieb
My aching feeling had been correct, and now it was time for action. I started to look at my beliefs and practices for potential appropriation and decided to share my findings on TikTok. I wanted to study the origins of all that I believed and all that I practiced.
Understanding Tarot in a Cultural Context
The first and most obvious to me was Tarot. After doing some research, I broke down the history of Tarot.
It is agreed upon that Tarot was first created as a game in Italy during the mid-15th century. It was heavily influenced by Egyptian Malik playing cards. The oldest known documentation of a Tarot deck used for cartomancy originates from an unidentified manuscript dating to around 1750. This manuscript outlines basic interpretations of the cards of the Tarocco Bolognese.
Esoteric Tarot became popular in Paris during the 1780s thanks to Antoine Court and Jean Baptiste Elliot, however, fortune-telling and other forms of divination were already widespread through the Middle Ages. Contemporary images of fortune-telling have evolved from the folklore of Renaissance magic specifically associated with Romani people.
This is where appropriation comes into play. If you’re dressing up like the Romani people and trying to tell fortunes, then yes, you are appropriating. However, while the Romani people did utilize Tarot while telling fortunes, Tarot was just as popular in the French occult scene. It moved to England in the late 1880s when Arthur Edward Waite published The Mysteries of Magic and in 1909 the Rider Waite Smith deck was first published.
I immediately felt relief. Reading Tarot itself was not appropriation, but what about my other practices?
Understanding the Origins of Chakras
I decided to dive into the origin of chakras.
Note: Westerners often mispronounce this word. It’s should be said with a hard ‘CH,’ as in “chocolate.” The incorrect “SH” — shockra — pronunciation came from appropriation and colonization.
The version of chakras that most of us are familiar with consists of seven chakras that correspond with a specific color, location, and lotus with a specific number of petals.
However, I found that this is nothing like the original concept of chakras that arose from tantric yoga circa 600 – 1300 CE.
Up until this point, it was believed that the Divine was transcendent (beyond or above the normal human experience). Tantric spirituality challenged this belief and declared that divinity is an inherent trait of the natural world and that we could commune with the Divine if we open ourselves up through mindfulness.
Lots of different spiritual practices emerged from this thought including chakras. Chakras are focal points of spiritual energy, but not in the ways that Westerners think of them. For one, there is no agreed-upon number of chakras, and they don’t have any of the associations that Westerners believe in today. They believe that chakras are fluid, not stagnant fixed points. More importantly, the original purpose of chakra work was to invoke the energy of specific Sanatana Dharma (Hindu) deities to emulate their behavior in teachings in daily life.
So where did Western chakras come from? It started with the spiritual teacher Purnananda Yati, who was badly translated by John Woodroffe, and given creative liberties by Anodea Judith. It is 100% cultural appropriation that has become completely mainstreamed in the New Age and neo-pagan communities.
Is smudging cultural appropriation?
Speaking of cultural appropriation that has become mainstream, I knew my next topic needed to be smudging.
Before researching this, I did a video on TikTok that gave alternatives to white sage for smudging. While it was made with good intent, my impact was cultural appropriation. I should have never used that word.
Smudging is an indigenous ceremony for purifying or cleansing the soul of negative thoughts and energy. It is a closed practice, meaning those who are not part of that culture should not practice it unless invited to experience it as a guest. Furthermore, smudging has specific guidelines and rules to make it safe and consensual. There was a popular meme that said:
Burning sage and the kids start whining “I can’t breathe!”
I bet you can’t.
I remember laughing at the meme, but according to the OFL Aboriginal Circle Guidelines for indigenous smudge ceremony: “Smudging is always voluntary. People should never be forced or pressured to smudge.”
More importantly, the United States government denied indigenous people the right to practice smudging along with other ceremonies until the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978.
Even today Indigenous people are still fighting to be able to perform these ceremonies in hospitals. Not to mention big businesses have decided to get in on the trend and are over-harvesting white sage (which is not historically part of European witchcraft).
The Journey Forward
These are just a few examples of cultural appropriation I have found. There’s far more nuance that surrounds other traditions than the above clear-cut distinctions between right and wrong.
My decolonizing journey has been profound and transformative. However, I know I have only begun. This practice demands a commitment to understanding historical contexts and power dynamics underlying these practices as well as a willingness to challenge my own assumptions and biases. It has been one of deep reflection, defined by a dedication to embracing diverse viewpoints and confronting unpleasant truths.
As I move forward, my next step is to transform my newfound understanding into concrete actions. This means actively engaging in uncomfortable conversations, advocating for marginalized voices, and challenging systemic injustices.
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Laura Carl is a creative manager at Unity World Headquarters. Her design work for Unity Magazine has won two Folio: Ozzie Awards, while her digital art has appeared in the gift shop of the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, and the 2018 “F the Art World” exhibition in New York City. Follow her on TikTok @NewThoughtWitch.