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The Myth of Paganism’s “Growth”

November 16, 2010


From a member of the ARIS team: “ARIS was published in March 2009. The data were compiled in 2008.”

Post amended to reflect his corrections.


We all know that Wicca will never be a popular religion, right?

Paganism won’t either.

People talk about the 2009 ARIS data a lot. Honestly, the oft-cited version released on the website wasn’t that useful for our purposes until recently, since it didn’t define Paganism using the terms our community recognizes (…or rather, the terms our community has failed to impress upon anyone.)

Instead, it lumped Wiccans, Pagans, and Druids in with:

“Scientology, New Age, Eckankar, Spiritualist, Unitarian-Universalist, Deist, Indian Religion, Santeria, [and] Rastafarians.”

Apparently statisticians think we’re all New Agers. Ouch.

People also talk about the 2008 Pew Forum data a lot. I don’t think it tells us there are 1.2M pagans. I think it tells us there are 803,040 Wiccans and Pagans, and 401,520…somethings (probably adherents of the New Age religions above) that none of us would call Pagan.

But anyway, in July I called the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture (ISSSC, the guys who did the ARIS survey) and got the breakdown of adherents by religion. I couldn’t tell anyone at the time, but now that the Statistical Yearbook is out for this year, I’m allowed to talk about it.

The broken-down ARIS data says…

There are 342,000 Wiccans in the US. There are 340,000 Pagans. With a standard of error of 0.5%, but the numbers agree with the pared-down Pew Forum ones, so I’m not too hung up about it.

So, 700-800,000 Pagans in the US as of 2006-2007. Not 10 million. Not 5 million. Not 3 million.

Really, that’s not a lot of Pagans. Also, it’s 2010. ARIS was published in 2009, but the work was compiled during 2008.

It’s been almost 3 years since these numbers were collected. A lot’s happened. What if Paganism has “peaked?”

Anecdotally speaking…I’m pretty sure it has. Certainly, Paganism isn’t growing at anywhere near the rate it was in the 90s. But actually, I’m very skeptical of the idea that Paganism is growing much at all.

Here are some of my reasons:

  1. Pagan and New Age stores are closing. From what I see, those that aren’t are offloading the Pagan/Wiccan/Magick stuff and switching back to Buddhism and Eckhart Tolle.
  2. In the 90s, we had Buffy. We had Charmed. Pagans were in the zeitgeist. What do we have now?
  3. For the majority of people in this day and age, the issues Paganism purports to address (disenchantment of the world, anomie, secularism) seem better ameliorated by either atheism or fundamentalism. Paganism could easily have been the third option…but it’s not.
  4. No one cares about feminism anymore. That robs us of a lot of our past vitality.
  5. According to the breakdown of the ARIS data I received from the ISSSC, many non-Pagan “New Age” religions have absolutely tanked. Scientology went from 55K adherents in 2001 to 25K in 2006. Actual card-carrying “New Agers” went from 68k to 15k (wow!) in the same period.
  6. Pagans are not immune from shrinkage, either. The number of Druids has actually decreased by about 5k since 2001, coming in at 33k that year but down to 29k in 2006.
  7. Wicca is growing, but at nowhere near the rate it was in the 90s. Assuming linear growth, the 90s saw Wicca expand by 152% per year (from 8k to 134k). 2001-2006’s linear growth rate was only 51% per year (130k to 342k).
  8. The current momentum in our movement is with the Recons, who are (if you can imagine) even less mainstream than the Witches. I mean, who wants to read books all the time?
  9. Why are only small publishers publishing our books? The good ones are coming out from the smallest-of-the-small, like Immanion.
  10. Why are all of our print magazines going away?
  11. Now that the true information about Wicca is more easily available than false ye-olde-religion stuff…who on Earth would join it?

There are a ton of other reasons. Maybe you could list some more in the comments.

But my main reason for believing Paganism isn’t growing, or won’t be growing for much longer, is just that “growth” fits in so well with the rest of the BS that we believe wholeheartedly.

Pagans are dreamers whose dreams have no basis in reality. The idea of a vital, growing Paganism fits in perfectly well with Pagan hopes and dreams and not at all with reality, so of course we’re completely in love with it. Just like we’re in love every other utterly-unfounded wish-fulfillment fantasy put forward over the past 60 years whose MO is to comfort us by separating us even further from a reality we can’t stand. It’s what we want. It’s what we need.

Let’s go back to the top of this post. I truly believe Wicca will never be a world religion. It’s complete nonsense, and at least in America, not much more than a feel-good alternative to Christianity. By it’s nature, it’s something to be grown out of.

Why will Paganism never be a world religion? I suppose it’s possible, but really, true polytheisms are personal, local, complicated affairs. They don’t withstand attacks by universal, dogmatic monotheisms very well. I just don’t see the rise of the local cult happening anytime soon.

I say, as we start addressing our religions on a deeper level, we’re necessarily splintering further and further into smaller and smaller communities. I couldn’t be happier about this, because now that we’re not so fixated on agreeing with each other all the time, we’re finally approaching a semblance of depth in our practices. But it’s a terrible thing if you ever want to see Pagan community centers, Pagan clergy, or a Pagan president.

There is no Pagan unity. That’ll be the next post.


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