How Many “Pagans” Are There?

(Version 3.0)


Determining Our Demographics

Copyright © 1997, 2005 c.e., Isaac Bonewits

I first sent this to an emailing list a few years ago, with intent to spark discussion. Some recent comments I’ve read on several other lists and a few websites, as well as the many attempts to accomplish a “Pagan Census” over the years, have prompted me to post this here, for the same reason.

Many people, both friends and enemies of our community, have become increasingly concerned about judging, declaring, or denouncing how many “Pagans” there are in the United States, Canada, or the world as a whole. As in most such questions, accurate or useful responses depend on how tightly we draw our definitional and methodological boundaries. The traditional journalists’ question list — “who, what, where, when, why, and how” — can provide some insight into the difficulties.

Who are the people “we” (Neopagans or Christians, Agnostics or New Agers, amateur or professional scholars) will agree to “count” (casually in conversations or polemics, or formally with statistical analyses and charts) as being what kinds of “Pagans?”

  • only people who are formal initiates of identifiable Wiccan or other Neopagan groups?
  • only members of such groups that have been legally incorporated or associated?
  • only members/initiates of such groups that have been “recognized” (by whom)?
  • all the self-initiated solitary Witches/Wiccans working from books?
  • everyone who attends open Pagan rituals regularly, whether they join any group or not?
  • those who are only “Samhain and Beltane Pagans”?
  • all the Unitarian Universalists who identify themselves as “Earth Religionists”?
  • or only the UUs who belong to the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans?
  • all the Goddess Spirituality folks who don’t call themselves “Pagans” (though they might call themselves “Witches”)?
  • all the claimed practitioners of Ancient Witchcraft Traditions (that they made up last week) who call themselves “Witches” but might not call themselves “Wiccans” or “Pagans”?
  • all the New Age fluffy-bunny, crystal-wanded, beaded-feather, would-be “shamans”?
  • some, all or none of those who belong to Mesopagan (mixed polytheistic and mono-/non-theistic) groups, such as Santerians, Voudounists, Native American Religionists, Mexican Catholics, Celtic/Norse/Baltic/Slavic racialists, Hindus, or Mahayana Buddhists?
  • some, all or none of the (extremely rare) surviving Paleopagan traditions?
  • everyone who loved “The Mists of Avalon”?
  • everyone who has purchased three or more books by Scott Cunningham, Silver RavenWolf, or Patricia Telesco (the entry-authors for many Neopagans in the last ten years)?
  • everyone who regularly buys Wiccan and other Neopagan books?
  • all or most of the people who regularly or occasionally post comments in Pagan newsgroups or in Pagan topics on America Online?
  • all or most of the people who regularly or occasionally participate in Pagan chats online?
  • some, all or none of the “tree-hugging environmentalists” who talk about Gaia/Mother Nature?
  • those children who call themselves Pagan? At what age (birth or later)?
  • those kids whose parents are Pagan but who haven’t yet decided if they want to be Pagan themselves?
  • those self-defined Pagans who are very devout, moderately devout, slightly devout or downright casual in their beliefs and practices?
  • those who formally declare their agreement with particular Pagan doctrines? Whose doctrines, in which phrasings?

Once we’ve decided what sorts of people we’re going to count, which ones living where do we count?

  • just those who live in the U.S.A. (and/or Canada)?
  • just those in the English speaking world?
  • any of them living anywhere on the planet?

When our counts take place is another issue. Obviously, a live population count always takes place in the present. Yet historians may well wish to estimate numbers of previous populations, and some other academics may want to design long-term demographic studies that begin now and are repeated at regular intervals in the future. Extending our counts from the past through the present and on into the future can provide useful information on growth trends.

Why do we want to know how many Pagans there are? The answer to this question will help us to make some of these definitional and methodological decisions. Do we want to make a social or (poly)theological claim based on our beliefs being widespread? Do we want to be able to tell elected officials how many potential Pagan voters there might be in each of their districts? Do we want to convince a judge and jury in a particular criminal or civil court case that a defendant, plaintiff, or witness is convincing or unconvincing as a Wiccan or Neopagan because there are a certain number of others who agree or disagree with him or her? Do we want accurate demographics over a period of several decades for historical or sociological purposes? Each of these different goals will require a different approach to any Pagan census.

As for how a Pagan census could be accomplished, we need to know exactly which census-taking methods would be appropriate, with which statistical methods of analysis and extrapolation, in order to arrive at accurate counts of our chosen Pagan population. Considering that there are many places in the world, even in the U.S.A., where being known as a polytheist of any sort is illegal or otherwise dangerous, our chosen methods will encourage or discourage cooperation from the populations we wish to count.

Just how many of us there “really are” isn’t a simple question. Answering it will require more than just agreeing upon (or at least declaring) which of the categories/decisions above we want to use and what our means of gathering, judging, and interpreting data will be. This latter issue raises many additional questions about claims and verification, especially considering both the legitimate needs for some Pagans to remain unknown to the general public (for fear of persecution) and the illegitimate needs for other Pagans to inflate the alleged size of their “traditions” (denominations or sects) and/or their followings.

For those of us who wish to enumerate our own demographics, as distinct from hostile outsiders wanting to denounce (or denigrate) our numbers, useful answers will also require majorities of the members of our various overlapping populations to actually get around to defining themselves, and/or agreeing to some common descriptions. That, of course, will necessitate at least a modicum of prescriptive and/or descriptive doctrines to be articulated — a can of worms Neopagans have been reluctant to open, mostly due to the personal traumas that the first two generations of Neopagans suffered as a result of their various dogmatic childhood religions.

Neopaganism is at the age (50+ years) where religious movements (as distinct from individual sects) start defining those prescriptive/descriptive doctrines, however, so the next few decades should be interesting. <G>

By the way, depending on all these variables, I’ve seen what I consider reasonable estimates for the number of self-identified, practicing Neopagans (including Wiccans) running from half a million to several million people in the USA and Canada. Certainly there are more of us than there are members of many other religions such as Unitarian Universalists, Quakers, Christian Scientists, or Spiritualists.

However, the lack of agreed upon criteria for defining/describing modern Pagans, the social and economic repercussions of being revealed as a Witch or Pagan in bigoted communities, and secular academic biases against “magical religions” will continue to make it nearly impossible to arrive at any firm numbers for the foreseeable future.

For now, all we can honestly say is “The Goddess is alive; magic is afoot!” (Or was than an arm?)

Copyright © 1997, 2005 c.e., Isaac Bonewits. This text file may be freely distributed on the Net, provided that no editing is done, the version number is retained, and everything in this notice box is included. If you would like to be on one or more of Isaac Bonewits’ emailing lists, click here to get subscription information.

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