Witchcraft Taking Hold In Australia

Buoyed by census figures suggesting that witchcraft is among the fastest-growing religious tendencies in Australia, an organization representing pagans voiced support Wednesday for the scrapping of legislation outlawing witchcraft and related practices.

Pagan Awareness Network secretary Louise Ainwight sent a letter to the Victoria state government saying the group backed the repeal of sections of a 1966 vagrancy law that bans "any kind of witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment or conjuration."

It is currently being considered by a parliamentary sub-committee that looks into legislation that may be redundant or unclear, and which will make a final recommendation to lawmakers in September.

In a discussion paper, the sub-committee said some of the legislation under review was based on antiquated English legislation hundreds of years old, from an era of very different social attitudes.

"Consider, for example, the offence of using witchcraft ... According to research undertaken by the committee, there has not been a conviction for witchcraft since 1712 in England," it noted.

In its submission to the committee, the state's leading law institute said the offense of "fortune telling and pretending to exercise witchcraft etc." was outdated and should be repealed.

Ainwight said the portions should be scrapped to "recognize the right of all Australians to practice their spirituality in whichever way they see fit," as guaranteed by the Australian Constitution and international rights conventions ratified by Canberra.

But for many Christians, the Wicca religion popularized by contemporary fiction and movies is far from risk-free.

Monsignor Peter Elliot of the state's largest Catholic Archdiocese said any recognition of what he called "this mishmash of superstition and fraud" would signal a collapse of values in Australian society. He strongly rejected the view that witchcraft was harmless.

Most Christians see witchcraft as akin to Satanism. Wiccans contest this, saying they recognize neither God nor Satan, but worship a goddess and her consort, a god. Their neo-pagan religion, they say, has to do with seasonal days of celebration and ancient Celtic deities.

Just-released figures for a census held last August show that the number of Australians defining themselves as witches has risen to 9,000, up from just below 2,000 in a 1996 census.

In 1996, around 4,300 others identified themselves as Pagans; the number is now approaching 11,000.

Although these figures pale alongside those for mainstream faiths - 68 per cent of the country's 19,1 million citizens defining themselves as Christians - most major Christian denominations lost adherents since 1996.

Meanwhile an opinion survey released Wednesday showed that only 20 per cent of Australians attend church services once a month or more.

Of respondents who said they didn't, 42 per cent attributed their decision to boring or unfulfilling services, while 35 per cent said they disagreed with Christian doctrine, and 21 per cent said they were too busy to attend.