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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.



Witch’s Wit Ale

November 14, 2010

I don’t have readers yet, and the story is over, so this may be a post without a point.

But the last post wasn’t hateful enough, so I need to get my quota up.

Anyway, my contribution to the brouhaha is an excerpt from an email I was forwarded, written by either the lady who discovered the offending Witch’s Wit label or one of her mewling compatriots.

Merry Meet All,

The Lost Abbey brewery released a new beer this month called “Wtch’s Wit”, and on the label is a picture of a Witch Burning at the Stake. I mean REALLY???????? I do not drink, and do not know this Brand anyway. But REALLY, A Burning Witch. And Again, WHERE does the HATE STOP?????????
Let us all Boycott this beer, and this Brewery for this Hate imagery they are using to sell there product, PLEASE. Below is some Links to the site and to write them a letter, and or call them with your/our message.”

I loved this mail so hard.

Let us all…be required to take a first grade Language Arts test before being allowed to practice “the Craft of the Wise.”


Defining Paganism

November 14, 2010

Many people have tried to “define” Paganism recently, as though the definition is in dispute.

If you look up “Pagan” in the dictionary, you will see a lot of definitions. Most of them are not useful.

Most are polemical,  or require non-Pagans to start a research project to figure out the terminology. Even most Pagans can see that the more benign definitions, like “earth-centered religion” or “animistic religion,” clearly don’t apply universally.

But one definition of “Pagan” is common to all: someone who worships multiple gods.

That’s really it, in my book.

Nothing about spells. Nothing about archetypes. Nothing about witches or healing or oppressed minorities or the divine feminine principle.

“Someone who worships multiple gods” is the definition used by anthropologists, sociologists, historians, and other experts. These are the people who know what they are talking about, and whose professions require them to term things clearly. When these people talk about “ancient pagan cultures,” they are talking about the polytheistic cultures that existed in many parts of the world before the coming of the various monotheisms.

I wish we could all agree on this simple definition and move forward.

I really don’t think this is so hard. The problem, as I see it, is that many people would like to use the word “Pagan” to mean something it doesn’t.

New Age is not paganism. Witchcraft is not paganism. The many non-devotional components of Wicca are not paganism. Ceremonial magic is not paganism.* Often, they may be components of someone’s pagan religion, but they certainly aren’t the same thing.

Now, the meanings of some words do change. I’m not debating to the contrary. Let’s be honest though: the meaning of “pagan” HASN’T changed.

Why? Because while many people know the scholastic definition of Pagan, the one used to describe ancient peoples as worshipers of multiple gods, no one knows what a (modern-day) Pagan is. No one in the general public, anyway: they probably know that ancient Romans were Pagan because they had a lot of gods, but I guarantee you if you start talking about any of the modern day Pagan religions (the ones with the magick and the Goddess and the vibrations), effectively no one will know what you’re talking about.

Whatever silly little additions we’ve tried to tack on to the definition of paganism haven’t been accepted by the culture around us. It’s at the point where you pretty much have to be (or have been in the past) a Wiccan to know what a Wiccan is in the first place, much less to know that most Wiccans also consider themselves to be Pagans.

Meanwhile, we have a simple, elegant definition, used by academics and other smart people and at least recognized by the public…that we just have to try and fiddle with.

We can choose to make up our own definitions of commonly-understood words, as we seem to want to do with “Pagan,” but we can’t expect to be understood outside of our tiny, tiny community. Why not just use words in the normal way? The scholarly definition of “pagan” is probably the most positive, unbiased definition that the general public is capable of understanding anyway. Why not use it?

If you worship a plurality of gods, you’re a pagan. If you, as a long-time Wiccan High “Priestess” recently told me, “have always had a problem with the concept of Deity,” you aren’t Pagan.

I say, as a movement, we should be past this. We know what we are, and accurate terms exist if we choose to use them. I think we’re looking to redefine the meaning of Paganism because we want a word that unifies us and “builds our community” or whatever. Newsflash: we don’t believe, act, or worship the same, so we aren’t unified. But that’s another topic.

Use Pagan if you worship multiple gods. If you only use the terms you personally “resonate” with, as opposed to accurate terms, remember that you’re quite possibly giving someone else (who doesn’t “resonate”) the wrong impression.

And if you can’t be understood, why bother defining in the first place?



*As well, having liberal political views is not a necessary part of paganism. Having sex-positive views is not a necessary part of paganism. Positivity and “light” are not necessary parts of paganism. Pro-choice views are not a necessary part of paganism. Even acceptance of homosexuality is not a necessary part of paganism.