Witch creed? Meet the new face of worship

Melbourne, Australia - WITCHCRAFT is a religion for the weak and oppressed, especially women. It has nothing to do with Satan, nor is it about sex. So says a leading Melbourne witch, Caroline Tully.

Ms Tully is part of an Australian trend in which witches and charismatic Christians are leading religious growth. Many women are turning to witchcraft or paganism as a reaction to the patriarchal nature of traditional Christianity. Academic Dr Philip Hughes, of the Christian Research Association, told a Melbourne seminar on spirituality that "nature" religions rose by 140 per cent between 1996 and 2001. Agnostics are on the rise, too. For many, the nature religions were seen as environmentally friendly and empowering.

Dr Hughes said numbers remained small, with fewer than 25,000 adherents in Australia. "They are never going to be really numerous as it is largely a protest movement."

Dr Hughes said growth among Pentecostals had been remarkable, along with ethnically based religions. For example, the Coptic Orthodox church grew 83 per cent between 1991 and 2001. "Immigrants head to the churches in large numbers — even if they did not attend in their homelands," Dr Hughes said. Church helped people connect with others who spoke their language.

He discounted fears in some church circles of mass conversions to Islam. "The number of converts is very small, probably in the realm of less than a thousand or two. Only 2.5 per cent of all Muslims in Australia were born of Australian-born parents, and some of these would be grandchildren of immigrants."

About 25,000 people of Australian origin identified as Buddhist at the last census. "For some this is a very serious pursuit. For others, Buddhism is an alternative to nothing. It is the closest to their point of view," Dr Hughes said.

Changes in immigration meant religion in Australia was now more diverse, he said. Between 1996 and 2001, Buddhist numbers grew by 79 per cent, Hindu by 42 per cent and Muslim by 40 per cent. But these groups combined still totalled less than 5 per cent of the population.

Those claiming no religion fell slightly in the 2001 census, partly because 70,000 people responded to an internet joke and described their religion as Jedi (from Star Wars), which the Australian Bureau of Statistics rejected, he said.

Dr Hughes said the militant secularism and atheism occasionally seen in the media was rarely found. Young people were inclined to "whateverism — whatever turns you on".

Ms Tully, a former Catholic, says witchcraft appeals particularly to environmentalists, feminists and those reacting against organised religion — but not many men. "Actually, I'm surprised the guys haven't taken advantage because there are so many single women.

"People are interested to find out about the alleged power magic offers, and it's do-it-yourself — you don't need a priest between you and the gods."