Thursday, January 11, 2007

Wicca As America's Third Largest Religion?: Unfortunate Evangelical Sensationalism

I was recently made aware of an item that was circulated by PRWeb. The item takes the form of a press release which was dated for April 21, 2005, with the title "Christians and Pagans Agree, Wicca Emerging as America's Third Religion," and the byline "Christians and Pagans agree that the Wiccan community is growing at an exceptional rate, and is projected to be the Third Largest religion by 2012." While Wicca and other forms of Paganism are certainly growing in America and the West, the sensationalism of these claims caught my attention and I'd like to provide a few comments that come by way of analysis of this item.

First, the press release became almost immediately suspect, not only because of the provocative title, but also because of one of the sources quoted in the item. Steve Wohl, a Christian and author of the book Hour of the Witch is quoted as saying, "we are now in a turning point and that Wicca would emerge as the third largest faith in America and would directly challenge Christian ideals of church and state." After a review of Mr. Wohl's website it appears that he provides yet another example of problematic, inaccurate, and sensationalistic Christian treatments of Wicca. The quotes he provides in the press release can easily be challenged as factually inaccurate, and the quotations seem more intent on alarming Christians than in accurately assessing Wicca and its relationship to the important issues of religious pluralism, tolerance, and freedom.

Second, the sensationalistic treatment of Wicca and other expressions of Paganism is an ongoing problem for Christians who have an unfortunate history of this practice, sometimes with very damaging results. The sensationalistic reporting of Wicca is akin to historic caricatures such as that illustrated in the image that which accompanies this post which depicts a common Christian stereotype of Witches as consorts of Satan.

Third, there is an unfortunate tendency to inflate the growth of Paganism and Wicca (as well as Witchcraft) by representatives on both sides of the metaphysical divide, whether Christian or Pagan. While reliable statistics are difficult to come by due to several factors, and a variety of estimates have been suggested, the American Religious Identification Survey of 2001 listed the number of Wiccans in the United States at 134,000, and when coupled with other forms of Paganism they arrived at a total Pagan adult population of 614,000. With the inclusion of children the number goes to 800,000. If we compare this figure with other religions in the United States, such as the 1.1 million Buddhists, 1.1 million Muslims, 2.8 million Jews, and some 159 million adherents of Christianity, then the numbers of Pagans in the United States is relatively small.

This is not to minimize or downplay either the growth of Paganism or its significance in the American religious marketplace. Great size is not necessary for a religion or spirituality to have significant impact in the marketplace of ideas, as demonstrated by various expressions of neo-Buddhism, Do-It-Yourself Spirituality, and Paganism. The influence of these religions and spiritualities is increasingly felt in the contemporary spiritual quest as well as in popular culture, even though the numbers of adherents or practitioners is relatively small. Thus, the new religions and alternative spirtualities represent a significant facet of American religious and spiritual life for the twenty-first century.

I hope that those interested in Pagan studies, particularly the media and evangelicalism, can be encouraged to seek out reliable sources of information on Paganism and can reflect on it carefully and critically. The increasing religious diversity of the public square, not to mention fairness in understanding and representation, makes these considerations more important than ever.


Jason Pitzl-Waters said...

For a good look at population figures, you should check out the essay "Numbering Neo-Pagans" by James R. Lewis, which can be found in the appendix of "The Encyclopedia of Modern Witchcraft and Neo-Paganism" (edited by Shelley Rabinovitch and James Lewis, published in 2002).

Lewis, a Pagan scholar, analyzes the data from several different sources (including magazine subscriptions and web traffic), to come to the rough estimate of approximately one million Pagans (or more) living in America. He specifically cited the figure of 3/4 of a million as a "conservative estimate".

As for "fastest growing" there is no evidence if we are or aren't. Though there is strong evidence that the cultural factors are there for our continued fast growth.

John W. Morehead said...

Jason, thank you for sharing this resource with readers. I am familiar with this statistic and think it should factor into our estimates. I would urge caution in the interpretation of magazine subscriptions and web traffic (as noted by Douglas Cowan in his book Cyberhenge), but Lewis's statistics should be considered.

Anonymous said...

A good place to start to track the growth of Neo-Paganism is at A website where Neo-Pagans are incouraged to post their names, religious affiliation according to their State and Cities. At this time there are officially 110,000 'Active' accounts of Neo-Pagans listed, which includes the international Neo-Pagans as well. This number does not include those that practice an indigenous religion. And these indigenous people would not be counted as Neo-Pagans, according to Neo-Pagan standards.

Who ever wrote this may have not uderstood the differences between Pagan and Neo-Pagan, in fact most Neo-Pagans today still have a problem with the differences, and which name to call themselves.

Their numbers make me wonder if there are this many members of the Neo-Pagan community, where are they?

There are many people I know of that practice a main relgion and use Neo-Pagan beliefs to enhance where their religion leaves off. These people I would not count as Neo-Pagan, yet those that wrote the article and run the websites that do the counting may have done so.

Personally I would prefer that Neo-Paganism remain small with an even slower growth.

I have found over the years that many will come to Neo-Paganism, and many will leave shortly afterwards, hoping to find what they did not in their old religion. When they realize that Neo-Paganism does not hold the answers they were hoping for they leave.

I don't feel that Christians have anything to fear from us. Those people leaving Christianity for Neo-paganism soon learn that this is a 'do it yourself' religion. They soon leave for their old religion having learned that the grass is not always greener on the other side.

Anonymous said...

My biggest challenge as a Pagan with Steves book and concept of Paganism is his devotion to the idea that Harry Potter is somehow promoting and presenting witchcraft. I've spent some time in the past (particularly at the time when Steve was having the book published) trying to enlighten Steve. Sadly to no avail. He's a nice enough chap I think. Just rather misguided and unwilling to listen to people who might have some first hand knowledge of the topic he is speaking about. Ok, so he claims to have spoken to some witches. I could probably find some people who claimed they were Christians who completely dismiss Christ as being a part of their faith. You would think that the sheer weight of responses he will have had from practising witches and wiccans pointing out how off track he was with his claims would indicate to him that perhaps there might be something in what is being said.

Oh well.



Dr David Waldron said...

Its interesting I noticed that on an article on the numbers of neo-Pagans in the United States in Wiki I was cited as stating that there are 10 million of them in 2000. What the number 10 million was referring to was the number of Wiccan related books sold as reported by a US book selling association. I then found that on Wiki imitation sites and then into weblore/folklore all sorts of people used me as a source for that claim. Its interesting how these things get started and how much people jump onto the band wagon of what they want to hear.
Dr David Waldron

John W. Morehead said...

David, thanks for weighing in on this matter. It serves as a reminder for the need for careful research and cautious assessment of sources when determining such matters. Thanks again for the comment, and for the interview on your book.

Dr David Waldron said...

Well this is it and chinese whispers of this nature I think are the bane of all research, especially in less mainstream areas. I think its particularly the case here where adherents of a belief naturally want it to be thriving and so a misquotation can so easily pass unnoticed since its what people want to here. As a researcher however its very frustrating to end being associated with some rather dubious claims lol.