NEW YORK – Witches are big draws at the box office, on TV — and apparently on college campuses.
While Harry Potter wards off calamity with a flick of his wand, hundreds of students nationwide are casting more than the occasional love spell, as they identify Wicca and other pagan practices as their official religion.
Members of Syracuse University's Pagan Society lighted candles in the campus chapel, while curious students signed up for a new class on witchcraft. And at the University of Arizona and Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, believers can be excused from class on Wiccan holidays.
Anthony Paige, a recent SUNY Purchase College graduate who started a pagan student group there, said Wicca appeals to some college students because "there is no sense of sin."
"There is a karmic law, but there's no scorn or condemnation," said Paige, who was raised a Roman Catholic and whose book Rocking the Goddess, Campus Wicca for the Student Practioner profiles college-age pagans.
Wicca, known as The Craft or witchcraft, is defined as a neo-Pagan nature religion influenced by pre-Christian beliefs that affirms the existence of magic and of both gods and goddesses.
"There is a cultural shift with college students identifying themselves less as religious and more as spiritual," said the Rev. Thomas Wolfe, dean of Hendricks Chapel at Syracuse.
Wolfe, who worried some would object to having Wiccan rituals performed in the same spiritual center used by Christian, Jewish and Muslim students, said he's faced no objections.
But evangelist Eric Barger of Take a Stand! Ministries believes Wiccan practices can lead to darker practices among vulnerable young adults.
"Of course, not everyone who delves into white magic or Wicca goes deeper," Barger said. "But it opens the door to black magic."
Barger has crusaded against the Harry Potter books through his own writing and in speeches to Christian churches, including a Pennsylvania church that burned the books last year.
Barger said he believes Wiccans have the right to meet and share their views. "But we also have the right to warn people," he said.
Not all young Wiccans have come out of the broom closet.
Elizabeth, (who didn't want her last name used) a 24-year-old Georgetown University graduate who was raised Catholic, hasn't told her parents she's a practicing Wiccan, and told few people at school about her faith.
"I pretty much practiced as a solitary the entire time I was there," she said.
Because many Wiccans practice autonomously, it's difficult to determine how many there are, said Paige.
Some schools now include Wiccan holidays among those celebrated by students, alongside those of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Sikhs. Among those schools are the University of Arizona and Lehigh University.
"We acknowledge an individual's right to engage in their religious practices as they see fit," said Lehigh spokesman Andrew Stanten. "It is our firm belief that we embrace all kinds of thoughts."
To view Lehigh University's "Accommodation Policy," click here.
Many believe pop culture has contributed to the trend. Bookstores have entire sections devoted to Wicca, and films like The Craft and TV shows like Charmed feature prominent witches.
But Wiccans like Elizabeth aren't convinced mainstream attention is good for her religion. "I really don't think the TV shows are helping to dispel the stereotypes of witches," she said.
Alyssa Beall, a Wiccan and graduate student in religion at Syracuse, says although the shows may not be accurate, "they have definitely raised general awareness about the idea that it exists as a religion."
Beall will teach History of Witchcraft and Magic next semester. The course, which will discuss the meaning of the terms "magic" and "witchcraft," and their connotations in history, was originally capped at 25 students. It has proved so popular she's opened it up to 10 more.
Barger said he doesn't object to such courses — provided they're taught from a historical perspective and not with the intent to encourage students to practice.
"Young girls want to be involved in witchcraft," he said. "There is an occult explosion going on around us."