Friday, May 17, 2013

The Unnecessary Threefold Law

I wanted to take some time to talk about rant all over the place about one of my personal positions for which I've received some pretty heavy criticism in the past. I know what follows might seem pretty ridiculous; I'm going to talk about a commonly-held belief that I don't think is grounded in nature or science, despite the fact that I practice witchcraft, I'm a polytheist, and believe in many things for which there is not really a scientific foundation. Having said that, I will try not to sound too inane, and  please keep in mind that I'm not singling out any person/group in particular, and that I'm not attempting to offend anyone either, including the authors I've cited. I welcome any feedback or explanations that can be given, but please do not tell me that you think I'm na├»ve or absurd or displaying arrogance and hubris. I've been told all of that before, I've had my share of mistakes, but I've also had a lot of success, and I arrived at the following (non)beliefs through years of personal practice and experience. Thank you for reading, and I hope there's a good point somewhere in all this.

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Karma. I can't do it, regarding any definition, but especially the basic American definition - for that concept, there is no room in my worldview. What I really have a problem with, and was actually one of the main theological issues that drove me away from Wicca, is the American version of karma (good things happen to people who do good, bad things happen to people who do bad) and further, the Threefold Law (the consequences of one's actions, whether good or bad, return to the actor three times over). The latter especially grinds my teeth, and is made even worse because so many Wiccans seem to believe in the Threefold Law in a literal sense. I've never once experienced any event that could be clearly attributed to karma. I don't see others experiencing such events either, though their own interpretation might be different. I don't see any evidence for karma, in particular the Threefold Law, in nature. And aren't our religions as Pagans and Neo-Pagans, most of us anyway, nature-based? Shouldn't those of us practicing nature-religion, as Wiccans are, take our laws for life from what is observable in nature, and not try to make man-made laws work within a natural concept that does not support them?

Sometimes I feel like I might be missing what the Threefold Law actually teaches. It's hard to know how watered-down the modern American Wiccan version is from what must have been in the original Gardnerian and other British Traditional teachings. I'm not against living as if the Law does happen in reality with the realization that it doesn't actually, but that isn't how it is taught or represented, at least in the literature. It is explained to be literally what is happening out in the universe every time an action is made:
  • "This couplet outlines the belief that the energy attached to any good or bad action that a Wiccan performs will be revisited upon the practitioner threefold (also known as the Law of Return). The threefold attribution is specific to the practice of Wicca, but the general law of cosmic consequence to an action or behavior is not unique." -Arin Murphy-Hiscock, from Solitary Wicca for Life (2005), referring to the couplet concerning the Threefold Law in Lady Gwen Thompson's Wiccan Rede.
  • "Karma is the Sanskrit term for the energy generated by our actions, particularly in relationship to future incarnations. Witches see it as an extension of the Law of Three: what you do will come back to you threefold. Seen from an ethical viewpoint, karma could mean that one who does 'good' acts get rewarded with good and one who performs 'bad' actions gets punished with bad events." -Christopher Penczak, from The Inner Temple of Witchcraft (2002).
  • "We believe in the Threefold Law and its justice. This has to do with cause and effect. What this means is that every action taken and every deed performed - whether good or bad - is calculated by karma at triple value, then sent back to us." -Dorothy Morrison, from The Craft (2001).
  • "Witches believe that you get your rewards and punishments during this lifetime, according to how you live it. Do good and you will get back good. But do evil and evil will return. More than that, though, it is a three-fold retribution. Do good and you will get back three times the good; do evil and you will receive three times the evil." -Raymond Buckland, from Buckland's Complete Book of Witchcraft (2002).
In the last quote, Buckland goes on to say it might not be literally threefold, but uses the example of getting punched in the eye. If you punch someone in the eye, you might not be punched back three times, but at some vague point in the future, you might break your leg, which is three times the punishment to being punched in the eye. That just sounds a little ridiculous to me.

Penczak might be onto something in his own work, and he is already known for looking at witchcraft and Wicca with somewhat scientific eyes. He explains the Threefold Law as the energy generated from action gathering inertia out in the universe before returning to the sender. He thinks the number three is arbitrary, but that the inertia of the sent energy is what accounts for the reward or punishment's increase. 

However, the worst, and the most commonly-observed in my opinion, is Morrison's outline of the Threefold Law in which karma is viewed as something conscious, or at least as a cosmic justice system. Karma calculates our actions and doles out rewards and punishments. I can't help but imagine a Dutch businessman in the 1500s sitting at a table with a scale, setting all the actions on one side, and adding enough weight to the other to be three times as heavy. Then giving his reward or punishment to some sort of karmic mailman with a Return to Sender stamp. I don't mean to poke fun at an ethical guideline that is so important to Wiccans, but it's the literalism by which it is upheld that just baffles me. 

Why is the existence of this mythical threefold return necessary as an ethical foundation? If you believe in no form of cosmic retribution, actions all still have consequences and its the avoidance or gain of negative or positive consequences that motivates our behavior. Receipt of pleasure and avoidance of pain is the system that already exists in nature. Wolf packs hunt and share food together, monkeys groom each other, parent birds protect their nests and offspring, vampire bats share blood meals with each other. Their rewards are health, bonding, survival. This non-karmic system of consequences is observable and effective, without having to try to figure out how to explain an unseen universal force (my Dutch businessman) deciding when and how each person will pay their karmic debts and cash out on their karmic rewards.

Karma isn't, and furthermore shouldn't, be needed to live by the Wiccan Rede: an' it harm none, do what ye will. We live in a causal universe. Actions have reactions, and we as humans interpret the quality of those reactions as good or bad. We can make decisions based on those consequences, whether predicting them or learning from previous experience. We can be good people, and harm none, because being so enriches our lives through friendship, overall positivity, love, and even the perhaps more baser expectation of reciprocal altruism. The Threefold Law is an unnecessary, unfounded ethical premise that, in my opinion, does nothing to actually enhance the practice of witchcraft or Wicca. If you engage in spell-crafting (or any other activity for that matter) without a clear head, a focused plan, and a careful consideration of the consequences, then you deserve what happens. And if you do take the time to consider all the possibilities, alternative solutions, and have a focused goal, then you also deserve the good that can come your way. But attributing such consequences -- whether they are good or bad -- to a cosmic justice system removes responsibility away from the practitioner and places it onto something invisible and ultimately unreachable. I fear that this lack of true responsibility can lead to misinformed, unreliable, and maybe even dangerous spell-crafting. (As a worst case scenario, of course.) It can cause a lack of growth of the practitioner because attributing every 'punishment' or 'reward' to a universal force that they have no way of controlling, instead of recognizing and admitting a mistake or a victory, prevents learning through self accountability.

That's why I call it the Unnecessary Threefold Law. I don't think it's bad, and I even think sometimes it could be nice if the good energy I send out could amplified back to me. But it isn't realistic. It isn't really logical. It isn't nature, and it isn't life.

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Tell me what you think in the comments. Do you agree with me? Disagree? Why?
If you believe in the Threefold Law, where and how do you see it happening?


  1. Wow I found this fascinating. I need to think on my response. I am not sure what I believe yet :-)

  2. I agree with most of what you say here. Those witches who say "I won't do healing work for people I don't know because it might be their Karma" make my head explode. I'm certainly not self-inflated enough to believe that my magic is going to undo the work of the Lords of Karma.

    The late great Isaac Bonewits gave a lecture on "Pagan Ethics" just before he died which covers much of this territory, and with a similar conclusion to yours, if I recall. The old Standing Stone and Garden Gate podcast carried a recording of it:

    1. Or those witches who won't just light a simple candle and send a prayer for a friend or someone else in need because they haven't gotten express permission. Very irritating.

      But anyway, thanks for sharing that link. I'm certain I haven't heard that lecture, I definitely appreciate it!