June 13 2024

Making Familiar the Unfamiliar: Teaching RLST 2626 “Witchcraft, Paganism, and the New Age,” at the University of Sydney

by Carole M. Cusack, University of Sydney

Snake handling at Pentecostal Church of God, Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky September 15, 1946

Australian Law and Non-Mainstream Religions and Spiritualities

Australia is a notably secular country. Only around ten percent of the population attends religious services of any kind, yet Christianity has a substantial role in public discourse (due in part to an unusually high number of practicing Christians elected to the three levels of government: local, state, and federal). RLST 2626, "Witchcraft, Paganism, and the New Age," is a second-year unit (taught over a 14-week semester) in the studies in religion major, and the course covers occult and esoteric religion (chiefly Western in origin) from the formation of the Theosophical Society in 1875 to the present day. It is necessary for students to understand that since White settlement in 1788, Christianity has dominated “religion” in Australia; Christian institutions are prominent in public life, and Christian doctrines and practices are the model for normative religion. Other religions are marginalised, whether Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, new religions, Indigenous religions, or esoteric traditions. Therefore, the unit’s content tends to be unfamiliar to students and has the potential to be controversial (as it includes Witchcraft, Paganism, New Age, UFO religions, Western New Religious Movements (NRMs) including Scientology, and esoteric practices such as Tarot and Astrology). One pedagogical strategy to manage the content is the use of legal materials, such as government records, legislation, and court judgments, to demonstrate that “strange” religions and spiritualities can be framed to parallel the mainstream, established religions. Indeed, certain legal materials—the Constitution and case law, for example—refer equally to the Roman Catholic Church and to Jediism.

RLST 2626’s coverage of occult and esoteric religion is not limited to Australia, but the local context is given prominence in part because Sydney is a vibrant, cosmopolitan city in which approximately 240 languages are spoken, exotic cuisines abound, and one of the world’s eight spectacular Baha’i temples features among a myriad of other religious sites and structures. I ask students consider Section 116 of the Constitution of Australia, which is vital for the relationship of law and religion. This was drafted during the National Australasian Convention in March 1898 and was formalized as law when Australia federated in 1901. Section 116 states:

The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth of Australia’s Constitution borrows from both the American “separation of powers” and the British system. Fascinatingly for the student of “alternative” religion, the Seventh-day Adventists were behind the protections of Section 116, as they were concerned that the mention of “Almighty God” in the Preamble could mean that mainstream Christian churches (effectively the Church of England) might use it to seek a greater public role, perhaps even the status of an established church. The Australian courts have to date interpreted only the “establishment” and the “free exercise” clauses—and both quite narrowly. The complicating factor is that the Section 116 protections refer only to the federal government and judiciary. As such, the six states and two territories are exempt and are the source of most of the contested legal materials that concern religion.

Another source of evidence is the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) five-yearly census that features a “religion question,” asking what is the respondent’s religion (in 1971 the note “If no religion, write none” was added). The question is voluntary, and 8.6% did not answer in 2011. In class we think of reasons why people may choose not to answer; anecdotal evidence suggests that people with ambiguous, multiple, or dual religious identity will not answer and that vulnerable refugee or migrant groups fear disclosing their religion, as do many members of ‘fringe’ religions, despite the census data being anonymous. We also discuss the ways that the line-count data is sometimes misleading. In 2011, the “no religion” cohort (Atheism, Humanism, No Religion, and various other answers) was 22.3%, paralleling the growth of the “religious nones” that has been observed in the United States and other Western countries. The total Christian affiliation was 61%, down from 68% in 2001. Yet when students identify other relevant data, and note that 70% of marriages in Australia in 2011 were nonreligious ceremonies, the picture looks somewhat different.

The “Jedi Census phenomenon” of 2001, in which 70,509 (0.37%) of Australians wrote “Jedi” or a variant thereof as the result of an e-mail campaign, is discussed during the course. This enraged the ABS, which originally refused to publish the count of avowed Jedi, but later gave in to public pressure and revealed the number, couched amid threats that falsifying census data could lead to the cancellation of social security benefits and other legal penalties and assertions that “Jedi” was not a recognised group under the Australian Standard Classification of Religious Groups (ASCRG). A decade later, Jediism remains a unrecognized religion, though the 2011 number of Jedis was 65,486 and now includes Padawans and Sith Lords. As a scholar of “invented religions” I take pleasure in explaining to students that this refusal of recognition says a great deal about the narrowness and normativity of definitions of religion used in Australia, about which there is more below.                    

Indigenous Religions and Scientology: Controversial Minority Religions Lead the Way in the Debate Concerning the Definition of ‘Religion’

When Captain Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet arrived 1788, the small group of White settlers soon came to dominate the Indigenous people. When Australia federated in 1901, one of the more shocking (to twenty-first century students) laws the new government passed is the legislation collectively known as the White Australia Policy, which restricted immigration to White, predominantly English-speaking Christians. This policy was not repealed in full until the late 1960s. In class, students explore how pieces of legislation that are about “race” (meaning skin color) also limited and stigmatised many forms of religion. One example of this is how, until the late 1960s, Greek Cypriots (Orthodox Christians) were seen as White and permitted to migrate to Australia, and Turkish Cypriots (Muslims) were not.  

My students are familiar with the discourse of Indigenous Australians being “spiritual” people, and they are usually shocked to discover that from 1788 to 1871 (when the anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor published Primitive Culture), Whites in Australia were adamant that Aboriginal people had no religion. Such a misunderstanding was common in many colonial contexts; Columbus reached the same conclusion regarding the peoples of the Caribbean, for example. The model of “religion” Whites used was based on Christianity, and as Aboriginal people had no written texts, dedicated priesthood, religious buildings, or Supreme Being, the colonisers assumed they had no religion. Tylor’s study proposed a minimum definition of religion, “belief in spirit beings,” which enabled Whites to recognize the ancestors of Indigenous culture as religious. Since modern Paganism has drawn upon Indigenous traditions, other legal texts that are studied include the 1967 referendum that granted citizenship to Indigenous Australians, and sundry state Witchcraft Acts that were in use until 2005 to harass Tarot card readers and astrologers as well as members of Pagan and New Age groups.

To continue the theme of the definition of “religion,” the Church of Scientology’s status as a “religion” in Australia is also considered. The first legal source is the Report of the Board of Enquiry into Scientology by Kevin Anderson (1965), a Queen’s Counsel (senior legal advocate), commissioned by the state of Victoria. This report investigated Scientology and concluded, in highly emotive terms, that: "Scientology is evil, its techniques evil, its practice a serious threat to the community, medically, morally and socially, and its adherents sadly deluded and often mentally ill."

The second source is the 1983 Supreme Court of Australia case, The Church of the New Faith v. Commissioner of Payroll Tax.1 In this judgment, Justice Lionel Murphy offered the following three examples of criteria that might be used to qualify a body as a religion:

(i) Any body (i.e., organisation) which claims to be religious, whose beliefs or practices are a revival of, or resemble earlier cults, is religious; (ii) Any belief in a supernatural Being or Beings, whether physical and visible, such as the sun and the stars, or a physical invisible God or spirit, or an abstract God or entity, is religious belief; (iii) Any body which claims to be religious and offers a way to find meaning and purpose in life is religious. (cited in Hume 1997, 219–220)

The initial reason why I used a substantial amount of legal materials in teaching RLST 2626 was to counter two types of prejudice that students were likely to be influenced by: first, that of mainstream Australia, which is largely indifferent to religion while understanding it to mean ‘Christianity’; and second, the insider accounts produced by Witches, Pagans, and members of esoteric spiritualities, which, at least when I began teaching the unit in the 1990s, often made the topic area seem less than objective and scholarly. Further, I was concerned to avoid the situation described by Stephen Brookfield (2007, 559) in which the inclusion of a unit on the contemporary manifestations of the Western esoteric tradition is an exercise in which “minority perspectives are always overshadowed by the mainstream one.” I wanted to stress the commonalities that Witchcraft, the New Age, and Paganism had with traditional religions, and not have students see them as “obviously weird minority opinion” (560). The law was one clear path toward the kind of pedagogy to which I aspired, offering a collection of sources that were public, had impact on the lived reality of “fringe” religions and spiritualities, and which were generally applied fairly across the board to both religious and nonreligious citizens of Australia.     

Implications of Using Legal Materials in the Study of Alternative Religions

In the past 30 years, curricula in religious studies have moved away from the dominance of the world religions paradigm and have incorporated units of study on Indigenous religions, new religious movements, occult and esoteric religion, secular equivalents of religion, and a range of other innovative areas of study. These changes contribute to greater student choice in terms of units to take towards their religion major, and to the possibility of investigating topics such as race, class, gender, sexuality, consumer behavior, and all manner of diverse phenomena common to multicultural, multifaith societies (Billings 2004).

The greatest challenge in teaching such topic areas is the tension that exists between presenting Left Hand Path groups such as the Temple of Set, for example, as exotic and challenging or as “simply a religion like any other religion,” and erasing the differences between, for example, the Church of England the Church of Scientology in the interest of fairness and diminishing the effect of the long shadow cast by Christianity over all other religions and over the study of religion (Pye 1994). Lynne Hume’s (1997) pioneering work, Witchcraft and Paganism in Australia, which remains a fine piece of scholarship, arguably erred in the latter fashion, presenting the activities of Australian Witches and Pagans in a very low-key and uncontroversial fashion in order to confer legitimacy on what was then a very new field of study (with which Hume was personally engaged). Reading Douglas Ezzy’s (2014) excellent recent publication, Sex, Death and Witchcraft: A Contemporary Pagan Festival, a study of a Pagan event pseudonymously termed ‘Faunalia,’ it struck me that little has changed in almost twenty years. Ezzy’s presentation of highly controversial material is respectful and moderate, embedded in academic methodology that renders the topic somewhat bloodless and less affective than it might be. Yet in teaching “nontraditional” religion, including contemporary groups within the Western esoteric tradition, the avoidance of the obvious pitfall of presenting unusual beliefs and practices as less valid or convincing than mainstream ones is essential. Ezzy, too, is a scholar-practitioner, and although he is not engaged in the business of Pagan theology, the question of the relationship between theology and religious studies does also arise. How is the issue of truth claims best handled in a classroom where the majority of students may not believe in God, but know that it’s more “reasonable” to believe in the biblical deity than in Baphomet or the Goddess of Wicca?

I find that effective teaching about minority discourses generally succeeds best when clear, factual information is presented coolly and without value judgments in the lecture, and the tutorial and seminar time is spent with students working in small groups on tasks such as reading confessional Pagan documents side by side with academic treatments of the same tradition, exploring legal rulings and their reportage in the media, or analyzing “academic” television documentaries vis-à-vis scandalmongering television programs. One assessment task I often set is writing a book review of an “insider” text (for example, Fiona Horne’s [1998] Witch: A Personal Journey or David Spangler’s [1976] Revelation: The Birth of the New Age), asking students to comment on 1) the content, 2) the genealogy of the Western esoteric tradition to which the book belongs, and 3) the usefulness of the content for both the spiritual seeker and the university student. Research on teaching and learning indicates that students are more likely to learn effectively when tasks are connected to “real life” and to their prior knowledge. My specific strategy of using legal materials links every religious or spiritual group we cover to the context of their lived experience of Australia, and the constant comparison of insider and outsider accounts draws attention to the ways that they, too, are both “inside” and “outside” various contexts in their lives, both religious and nonreligious.

"Witchcraft, Paganism, and the New Age" is consistently well rated by students in survey quizzes; they say it challenges their presuppositions about religion, opens their eyes to aspects of the city of Sydney that are not exactly hidden, but that might be missed if one wasn’t actually looking for them, and that it teaches them to think about the legal issues that arise when religion—for whatever reason—becomes visible within a secular society. That these positive responses from students are generated by my teaching in a unit that I simply love is a bonus. I designed the unit because I knew I was deeply interested in “alternative” religion, and after more than a decade I remain fascinated by the remarkable achievements of the Western esoteric tradition and regard being able to teach on such topics, to such interesting and interested students, as a privilege.


1 Antony Mason (Chief Justice), Lionel Murphy, Ronald Wilson, F. Gerard Brennan, and William Deane, Church of the New Faith vs Commissioner For Payroll Tax (Judgement). 1980. Canberra: High Court of Australia.


Anderson, Kevin Victor. 1965. Report of the Board of Enquiry into Scientology. Victoria: State of Victoria, Australia. Accessed 8 May 2014. http://www.apologeticsindex.org/The%20Anderson%20Report.pdf.

Australian Bureau of Statistics. 2001. “Census of Population and Housing – The 2001 Census, Religion and the Jedi.” Australian Bureau of Statistics. Accessed 8 May 2014. 

Billings, Gloria Ladso. 2004. “New Directions in Multicultural Education: Complexities, Boundaries, and Critical Race Theory.” In Handbook of Research on Multicultural Education, edited by James A. Banks and Cherry A. McGee Banks, 50–65. 2nd edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

Brookfield, Stephen. 2007. “Diversifying Curriculum as the Practice of Repressive Tolerance.” Teaching in Higher Education 12 (5-6): 557–568.

Ezzy, Douglas. 2014. Sex, Death and Witchcraft: A Contemporary Pagan Festival. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Hume, Lynne. 1997. Witchcraft and Paganism in Australia. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.

Pew Research Center. 2012. "Nones" on the Rise: One-in-Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center. Accessed 8 May 2014. http://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/ .

Pye, Michael. 1994. “Religion: Shape and Shadow.” Numen 41 (1), 1994: 51–75.

Carole CusackCarole M. Cusack is professor of religious studies at the University of Sydney. She trained as a medievalist, and her doctorate was published as Conversion Among the Germanic Peoples (Cassell, 1998). She teaches contemporary religious trends including pilgrimage and tourism, modern Pagan religions, new religious movements, and religion and popular culture. She is interested in the scholarship of teaching and learning and worked for the University of Sydney’s Institute for Teaching and Learning in 1993–1994. Her books include Invented Religions: Imagination, Fiction and Faith (Ashgate, 2010) and The Sacred Tree: Ancient and Medieval Manifestations (Cambridge Scholars, 2011). She was pro-dean (Teaching and Learning) in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences in 2013–2014, and received a Faculty Excellence in Teaching Award in 2004, a Humanities and Social Sciences Excellence in Supervision Award in 2006, and a Vice Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Research Higher Degree Supervision in 2010.

Header Image: Snake handling at Pentecostal Church of God, Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky, September 15, 1946 (National Archives and Records Administration ARC Identifier 541335). Photo by Russell Lee. In the Public Domain.