Love, Grief, and Hope: Emotional responses to death and dying in the UK
Madeleine Pennington and Nathan Mladin’s report examining emotional responses to death and dying in the UK. 27/11/2023
Esme Partridge looks at the phenomenon of ‘WitchTok’, and considers what it means for spirituality in the internet age. 06/09/21
It is widely known that many of our religious practices have acclimatised to the digital environment during the Covid–19 pandemic. From Zoom church services to dial–in Sufi dhikrs, familiar means of engaging with the sacred have inevitably had to migrate online in response to the current times. But what about those forms of spirituality which have been conceived online in the current times?
Since the first lockdown in 2020, a number of new alternative spiritualities have been brewing in the cauldrons of internet subcultures. Making particularly strong ripples in the TikTok feeds of Gen–Zs is ‘WitchTok’; a movement (or rather, a hashtag) of individuals sharing Neopagan practices such as ‘manifesting’ – attempting to actualise desires through various magical techniques – and ‘hexing’ – casting malevolent spells – in the form of short clips, often accompanied by hallucination–like filters and the kind of music one might hear at a transcendental meditation class. It is not uncommon for these videos to attract hundreds of thousands of viewers; in some cases, they have even transcended TikTok and become the subject of mainstream media articles and Twitter storms.
In the summer of 2020, it went viral that a clan of WitchTok ‘baby witches’ had, for reasons that remain unknown, attempted to cast a hex on the Moon. Then, just two weeks ago, their antics gained traction once again after it was brought to light that yet another virtual coven – in this case, one residing on the online forum Reddit – had been plotting to ‘hex the Taliban’ in response to the recent events in Afghanistan. This Reddit group, BewitchTheTaliban, included a post in which one ‘baby witch’ claimed to have ‘summoned’ Allah to ‘try and weaken him so our spells would work better’. The post ended with the remark, ‘we will all have to do this together if we want to slay a God’.
Posts such as these invite us to probe digital spirituality and the forces behind it. How does it differ from previous alternative spiritualities such as the New Age movement? How does the ‘digital’ aspect shape this form of belief for the first generation raised online? Finally, what implications does it pose for a supposedly ‘disenchanted’ world, considering that it appears to have awakened a renewed interest in what lies beyond the materialism of secular modernity and yet, at the same time, seeks to ‘slay’ God in ways which echo European Enlightenment attitudes toward religion – the very same attitudes which, according to the sociologist Max Weber, were the cause of secular ‘disenchantment’ in the first place.
Firstly, it is notable that WitchTok does differ substantially from the New Age movement, despite inheriting many of its traits. While the New Age was certainly eclectic in its borrowing of elements from existing traditions, it nonetheless took on a relatively institutionalised form with real–life leaders, communities and central texts binding them together. WitchTok, however, bears no semblance to institutionalised spirituality whatsoever; it knows no bounds, with its practices and ideas being fully malleable and adaptable to the individual user. In this sense, it is the ultimate postmodern spirituality.
Nothing could be more reflective of the conditions of cyberspace; lacking the gravity to hold content together coherently and instead swayed by the cosmic pull of algorithms, trends in digital spirituality can peak and trough within hours. Moreover, the user–oriented nature of the app makes the formation of stable communities virtually impossible (at least, beyond anonymous Reddit threads and TikTok hashtags), inviting each individual user quite literally to conjure up their own hyper–personalised forms of spirituality.
As we have already seen, this often entails rather groundbreaking claims about the nature of spirits, deities and even God himself. For instance, in one WitchTok video, a young witch describes how ‘her angels’ informed her that the Christian God is ‘an entity with bad intentions’ who ‘is now imprisoned by angels’. That is why, she says, ‘that “God” never responds’; ‘it’s cause [sic] they’re in PRISON…and their crime was distracting humans from the one true source that lives within all of us.’  In a distinctly postmodern fashion, gods – and even God himself – become a mutable; the traditional status of God as a creator, for example, becomes just one of many theories, the truth of which becomes relative to the individual.
Indeed, despite the seemingly limitless possibilities for eclecticism and innovation within the universe of digital spirituality, the traditional ‘God’ and organised religion are somewhat of a taboo. This is made quite transparent in the Reddit post about weakening and ‘slaying’ Allah, but it can also be found in a number of WitchTok videos where explicit criticisms of Christianity are rife. For example, one user creates videos where she mocks Christians, in one instance replying to a comment left by a Christian user – reading ‘may God forgive you’ (in response to her beliefs) – with the remark, ‘[forgive me] for what exactly…critical thinking?’ 
The rejection of organised religion on the basis of its lack of ‘critical thinking’ is particularly telling in terms of where digital spirituality stands in relation to secularity. While on the one hand, these WitchTokkers seek to ‘re–enchant’ their worlds through reviving unseen realms and deities, they appear to remain faithful to the Enlightenment project of modernity. Their rejections of organised religion, for example, are strikingly resonant of the Reformation and Enlightenment climate of opinion. Making a similar observation about the New Age movement, the scholar Wouter Hanegraaff has identified these forms of spirituality as existing ‘in the mirror of secular thought’. Owing to the fact that they adopt ‘the characteristic arguments of the Enlightenment to attack conventional Christianity’, he says, they ‘cannot be characterised as a return to pre–Enlightenment worldviews.’ 
It would seem, then, that despite its attempts to re–enchant reality, digital spirituality too exists in ‘the mirror of secular thought’. Its desire to ‘slay God’ – both literally and more implicitly within the very act of practicing magic and attaining supernatural powers – is a clear echo of the rejection of religion that has characterised the Western world since the European Enlightenment; the very source, according to Weber, of ‘disenchantment’ itself. Far from representing a post–materialist rewiring of theology or metaphysics, these forms of spirituality appear not to reverse but rather to ramify disenchantment – now with an added a software update.
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 @blueberrylimeade (5th January 2021), https://vm.tiktok.com/ZMehbewgn/ (Accessed March 2021)
 @lilith_unleashed (4th February 2021), https://vm.tiktok.com/ZMehbsVsh/ (Accessed March 2021)
 Hanegraaff, W. J. (1996), New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought, Leiden: Brill, 412
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.