The Law of Threefold Returns is a concept most often followed by Wiccans but some other traditions of witchcraft also observe it. This law simply states a theory of how magickal energy functions in our universe:
Whatever energy you send out (good or bad),
returns to you times three.
This admonition has generated a great deal of support not to mention comparable criticism over the years. Those who support the concept feel it helps outsiders understand why witches who have the power to hex anyone who crosses them generally don't. It also prevents errant witches from committing harmful acts of which the witchcraft community does not approve. Negative energy breeds negativity according to the Threefold Law of Returns. I know when ever I make a mistake and hurt someone’s feelings it sure feels like my energy has returned times three. When I do bad I feel bad. In this the 3-Fold Law makes perfect sense to me.
Critics, however, imply that the 3-Fold Law (like the Wiccan Reed) is no more than an attempt by pagans to validate their spiritual path in terms that mainstream Judeo-Christian society can appreciate.
A similar criticism is seen in the Catholic Church (the oldest existing form of Xtianity). The Church in the United States has borrowed newer Protestant practices (including revival meeting-style gatherings—a practice unheard of in the past) in order to regain members and make their tradition more palatable to a predominantly Protestant nation. But, should Catholicism (or any religion) have to alter their ancient ceremonial practices, developed over 2000 years, in order to appease a fickle audience? Many Catholics that have left this "Americanized" Church say no.
The same argument exists with witches. Should witches have to part with their long-standing view that you live by your heart and do good because it feels good? Christian society may need validation from us that we are not murderous villains sacrificing virgins and newborns, but does that mean we have to adhere to what many call "fabricated dogma"? Maybe...maybe not.
Some witches feel comfortable with this "social safety net" even if they do not feel as though the actual words bind them the way their own conscience binds them to be good people. Remember, there was a time when witches were the doctors, the spiritual leaders of their villages. They toiled over decades to free themselves of their petty jealousies and negative tendencies. They fought to deserve the reverence with which their fellow villagers regarded them.
Interpretations of the Wiccan Rede and the Threefold Law also pose significant problems for witches trying their best to survive on this physical plane and hopefully evolve. Protection and defense are serious ambiguities that few witches can agree on. In mundane life, we rarely have this trouble. Example: A car jacker tries to kill you. You kill him instead. The courts hold your actions justifiable for obvious reasons. Is it because witchcraft is so often performed in the shadows without the urgency of mundane life that strict ethical enthusiasts frown on magickal defensive measures? When should a witch defend himself? Should he ever be allowed to use magick for defense? Some witches say no and cite the Rede and the Rule of Three as reasons. This is where dogmas can create stagnation. Interpretation can make or break concepts like the Rule of Three.
Today with society no longer dependent (or rarely even tolerant) of witchcraft, a witch can easily whip out the Wiccan Rede or the Law of Threefold Returns to quiet a religious fanatic in a flash. But should that be the only reason we adopt this law?
Other supporters try to provide metaphysical reasons why magickal energy DOES return in threes. To date there is no evidence that this fact exists in nature. Karma, the Hindu concept of repayment of energy in subsequent lives, is the only law that comes close to the Law of Three. Again, Karma affects the individual in a later life, not in the same one that he or she currently lives.
Still, even without much basis in fact, I don't see the harm in it as long as we agree to use our heads when thinking of ethics and rules. If a person needs a dogma such as this to keep from harming the world, them maybe that person does not deserve to be a witch at all. Can someone who harms others with magick (or with mundane means) really maintain the proper mental state to achieve results for long? Perhaps this it the best return for bad acts.
I look with great anticipation to a day when religions (mainstream and pagan) can assert that doing good is not based on fear of cosmic retaliation, but because it feels good to contribute to the balance of our society.