I first sent this to an emailing list a
few years ago, with intent to spark discussion. Some recent comments
Ive 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
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
- 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 dont
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
- 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
havent 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 weve decided what sorts of people
were going to count, which ones living where do
- just those who live in the U.S.A. (and/or
- 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
isnt 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,
Ive 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?)