The Real Spirit of Wicca: Its Philosophy and Practices
The modern images that cling to witchcraft - popularized by fantasy films and TV shows, and such books as Harry Potter and Sabrina the Teenage Witch - have brought certain superficial aspects of paganism into the spotlight whilst creating a lot of misunderstanding amongst people insofar as its real tenets are concerned. One of the chief consequences has been the association of Wicca, a belief system within paganism that stresses honoring and living in accord with nature, with witchcraft, which is commonly understood as techniques for using magic to dominate others or satisfy one's desires in other ways.
The persecution of witches in England and in Colonial America has become a part of our folklore, an embarrassing reminder of one of the most gruesome and fear-based epochs in our history. The impact of the European witch-hunts, the Salem witch trials, the Inquisition, and such propagandist books as the Malleus Maleficarum painted an image of paganism as being Satanic and distinctly anti-Christian - ignoring the fact that the religion and its various branches all pre-dated the advent of Christianity. The Church made a concerted effort to stamp these practices out; and what could not be abolished was assimilated (we can see this influence in much of our modern holiday practices such as decorating the Christmas tree, burning the Yule log, the Easter egg with its fertility rite overtones, and Halloween).
In truth, Wicca was not a reaction against Christianity at all because (1) it had been in existence long before the birth of Christ - it is its own religion, not a heresy, and (2) Wiccans do not share the same symbolism and belief systems as Christians - i.e., they cannot be Satanic, as they do not believe in Satan.
Wicca is sometimes referred to as a "new old" religion, because it is composed of fragments of ancient practices and writings on magic, with other occult or pagan material thrown in to fill the gaps. Another term for this is eclectic Wicca. A good example of this evolution of the religion can be seen in the women's movement of the '70's and '80's, which stressed female empowerment and thus led to Wiccan groups that were devoted nearly or solely on worship of the goddess (Diana) at the expense of the god.
There is no central church of Wicca, nor is there any sacred text that outlines all of its beliefs. It is an experiential religion, much like shamanism is. Wiccans base their spiritual path on earthly life, not an imagined Heaven or other afterlife. Wicca embraces all aspects of the Earth experience and being in a physical body. A lot of its symbolism is based around the four natural elements: earth, air, fire, and water. The wider cosmos is also embraced by the practice: astrology is used, and Wiccans see the sun as the embodiment of their god and the moon as the embodiment of their goddess. Most of all, though, they believe that the sacred is something that must be experienced: one must know it from the inside. Wiccans do keep collections of spells and rituals, or buy and read books on the matter, but their focus is upon cultivating that experience of the sacred. All the rites, invocations and other practices are aimed at promoting their awareness of the Divinity in all things, all of earthly life.
On a practical level, this can mean finding one's purpose in life; put more esoterically, it is finding one's higher self. This makes Wicca a path of personal growth and empowerment. For this reason, there is no dogma, no rules imposed by spiritual authorities. However, there are some commonly shared beliefs. Most Wiccans believe in a divine force that gives life to the universe and transcends space and time. They believe that this deity or life force exists within all things (not somewhere "out there"). The earth is sacred space, therefore. This ties in with Wiccans' belief in psychic abilities and magic, also: if the life force permeates everything, then human beings should be able to tap into that power - which transcends the five senses - to achieve extraordinary things.
Many Wiccans also work to heal and care for the natural world in whatever ways they can. This is a natural outgrowth of their convictions that the Earth is sacred.