The Narrative of Explosive Growth Does Us No Good

Modern Pagan religions are growing, this is a fact backed up by surveys and census data, and many believe that we are growing even faster than these somewhat imprecise methods can track. Historian Ronald Hutton has estimated that there may be as many as a quarter of a million Pagans in the United Kingdom, far more than the figure of 40,000 from the 2001 census, and Pagan groups in Australia and Britain have engaged in campaigns that they hope will bring in census results closer to their own estimates. That said, until we get better figures, better surveys, we have to go by what we have. That means around 40,000 Pagans in the UK, around 30,000 Pagans in Australia, around 22,000 Pagans in Canada, and recent Pew Forum and ARIS data that places modern Paganism hovering somewhere around a million adherents (give or take a hundred thousand or two) in the United States.

Not going to become the 3rd largest religious group any time soon.

However, even if we grant that the larger estimates by friendly scholars and movement insiders are more accurate (and I’m hoping 2011 census data will bear our larger estimates out), that would still only mean around 3-5 million modern (ie “neo,” revivalist, and reconstructionist) Pagans worldwide. We are far from taking anything over, despite our advances and achievements. Yet the mere idea of Paganism’s return has sparked some atavistic fears within certain segments of Christianity, and has caused them to use shoddy estimates to falsely bolster our numbers in order scare their audiences into buying products. Many are gloomily predicting that Wicca will soon be America’s third-largest religion. Naturally, what scares certain conservative Christians excites some Pagans, leading them to use these explosive estimates to their own ends.

Wicca is America’s Fastest Growing religion, and it is anticipated by some Christian religious experts that it will become the third largest religion in the United States early in the 21st century, behind only Christianity and Islam. Just this week, a press release for the new book God’s Ghostbusters, by Defender Publishing quoted editor Thomas Horn “In the United States alone, there are now more than two hundred thousand registered witches and as many as 8 million unregistered practitioners of ‘the craft’.”

Witch School Co-Founder Ed Hubbard recognizes that the statements and numbers put out by Horn are similar to his own viewpoint. Hubbard offers “There is such a rapid spiritual reorientation in America occurring, that the need for thousands of Wiccan teachers over the course of the next decade will be required to meet the demand for basic teachings. Because of Wicca’s liberating beliefs and useful skills, people want to understand and embrace it, and learn how to awaken their inner abilities.”

That’s from a brand-new press release issued by Witch School, using these largely invented figures to sell their product. In fact, Witch School co-founder Ed Hubbard knows Horn’s figures are overblown, because he told me so right here at The Wild Hunt.

“I know how they got the 8 million. It has to do with a series of articles from 2005. Basically if we had doubled every eighteen months as we did in the beginning, we would be facing 8 million. I know much of where this is coming from. I can give the strange math if you ever want it.”

In fact that there is a “spiritual reorientation” going on in the West, but it isn’t really about modern Paganism. The numbers point to growing numbers of the religiously unaffiliated more than anything else. That may be good for us societally speaking, and may even spark some growth, but we aren’t the primary recipients of this shift into post-Christianity. Witch School may have had over 200,000 people take classes with them, but I highly doubt they’ve managed a 100% retention rate of students who stuck with Wicca or some other form of modern Paganism over the years.

Speaking frankly, I think it does our movement no favors to peddle misinformation and wishful thinking in order to self-promote. Spreading inaccurate narratives, no matter how positive they may seem, actually harms our attempts to establish ourselves. Muddying waters with “strange math” simply sets us up as opportunistic self-promoters instead of building the bridges we need in areas like chaplaincy, intrafaith, and interfaith work. I’m disappointed that a popular Pagan service would validate the Christians who want to see us as a encroaching menace, even if may flatter our conceptions of rapid growth. The narrative of explosive growth does us no good, I hope that Pagans will drop it in favor of statistical data that will support our claims.

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Sick Day
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The Religious Pundit Class Equivalent of Hippie Punching
Being a Religious Minority (in Public Schools)
About Jason Pitzl-Waters
  • Thomas Valdez

    The figures are designed to terrify the Christian right about the rising tide of us evil Pagans and Devil worshipers so that the rubes will tithe all the more.

  • Pagan Puff Pieces

    Without any sort of military, political, or socioeconomic shenanigans, any sort of Pagan takeover, if at all, would be boringly slow and nonthreatening without placing some trees in the background to give an illusion of speed.

    After all, Pagans still have to rely on people, you know, actually wanting to be Pagan. I think that in and of itself is why a lot of Pagans are Pagans.

    That whole temptation to stray thing really doesn’t work very well on its own, you know? At best, they’re just tempted to be whatever it is you are when you’re not a part time something.

  • Corc Hamr

    Honestly, I think a Pagan takeover would make the trees look like they’re growing fast. After all, this is the group that is often described as “herding cats”.

    That said, being a set of religions that seldom (if ever) proselytize doesn’t help our numbers, either. That we’re growing despite Christianity’s mandate to “go and preach” is kind of telling, to me.

  • Marc Mielke

    I would hope a Pagan takeover would grow some trees just because they’re trees and we need more trees.

  • Áine

    “registered witches”? I didn’t know we had a registry. >.>

  • Robert Paxton

    I see has a “wish list” on their website…does that count?

  • Star Foster

    In that case, count me registered as Patchouli and Nag Champa.

  • Kauko

    Patchouli = win!

  • Aine Llewellyn

    I left Witch School a year ago because I didn’t like how they conducted business (tossing out two of their priestesses who were speaking out about some problems in the organization), and I also wonder how many of those 200,000 registered students are active in classes and their own local Pagan communities.

  • Star Foster

    I have assumed that number came from their web traffic, not active students. Of course, if it comes to traffic stats then Witchvox is the world’s largest Pagan “denomination,” which I’m certain would amuse Fritz and Wren.

  • Aine Llewellyn

    Haha, very true (and thank you for giving me a little giggle before I go off to face the torture of my crazy family).

  • Ed Hubbard

    Actually is the 4th most trafficked Pagan site in the World. They certainly should be proud, and I have seen their numbers used over and over again.

  • Polarity

    I know from reading the LJ comms that one of them was a fish. And I’m pretty sure a couple of other people registered their pets several years ago to prove how hollow the whole thing was.

  • Ed Hubbard

    People may have registered their pets, but unless they are able to fill out forms and answer questions, it still was a human being pretending to be their pets. Since Pagans so love their pets, why should we question them channelling their pets desires.

  • Tara

    A pet wants to sign up for something on the internet, and uses its human owner to do it? LOL!!!!!!!!!!!!
    I don’t know if that’s what you meant, but that’s how I interpreted your comment and it made my day!

  • Ed Hubbard

    We have 85 local temples working, plus members ina number of organizations including Pagan Pride, Circle and COG. We recently began a Spanish Show and launching a Spanish based site. As lifetime members, people come and go as they please, which is very Pagan traditional.

    But at the end of the day, it is not about numbers, but about instilling leadership and community where little exists now.

  • Aine Llewellyn

    I saw how two very good priestesses, mentors, and leaders were stripped of their ability to teach and lead because they took some issue with how business was conducted (as well stating that they wanted to help change these issues).

    And ‘community where little exists’? What are you talking about? Yes, the Pagan community may love debate and not always get along, but there is community.

  • Kilmrnock

    i agree using or false or inflated numbers for our community will do us no good and possible harm in the long run.we don’t need to be fanning the flames of extremist xtians paranoia.paganism as a whole is the fastest growing religion in america while the others are declining , we will catch up eventualy on our own . kilm

  • Anonymous

    I am more willing to believe that many people are becoming ‘religiously unaffilliated’ because I’m one of them. Yes, I am Pagan. But I do not belong to any coven, school, or major umbrella organization. In fact, the Pagan community in my area is nearly totally private and closed- with rare exceptions around “Pagan Pride Day”. I represent no one but myself.

    I dislike the growing hostility that the extremist Christians are displaying- not only to us, but to anyone who does not toe their very sharp line. This includes other Christian sects. They are actively ‘steeplejacking’ mainline congregations and over-running civil discourse with their extremely harsh and punitive worldview. What they are succeeding in doing is not converting people, but making them discard religion altogether. No wonder ‘unaffilliated’ is the fastest growing religious segment.

  • Norse Alchemist

    I agree, I’m an Asatruar but I’m not “affiliated” with any of the organizations.

    And it seem both the main Abrahamic religions are getting snippy about those who don’t share their beliefs these days. 😛

  • Alice C. “A.C.” Fisher Aldag

    How were these statistics gathered? The U.S. Census short form hasn’t anything to determine religion. I’ve never answered any poll stating my religious preference — EVER — so how do we actually know how many people there are in religions that don’t keep track of their numbers?

  • Jason Pitzl-Waters

    US statistical data on religion is gathered by independent surveys from groups like Pew, ARIS, and Gallup. The Pew Religious Landscape survey, and the ARIS data both use very large sample sizes making them the most accurate data we can currently access.

  • Ed Hubbard

    Let me offer you one set of Data Points widely ignored, and mostly unavailable and that is advertising stats. Far beyond the usual stats grabbed by religious academic bodies, the advertising industry has extensive demographics available.

    In the case of this particular piece, with Book Sales and product sales, that can be identified as Pagan, eight to ten million Americans hold at least one or more serious beliefs that can be identified as Pagan and thus have a interest in the community.

  • Jason Pitzl-Waters

    That “data point” you mention was from one off-the-cuff comment by an executive. It proves exactly nothing about our numbers.

  • Jason Pitzl-Waters

    Also, that comment, that you have no idea is based on solid data, would probably be very, very different today give the state of the book market. You do know that non-Pagans buy Pagan books, right?

  • Juliaki

    Moreover, if book sales are used to determine our numbers, and book sales are on the decline with the closing of Borders stores, then the closing of Borders stores has started reducing the number of pagans out there? Interesting theory… 😉

  • Maria Meyer

    No offense Ed, but you can’t go by those numbers either, not when you take into consideration that at least half of the people that are buying books on Paganism or Pagan related merchandise are the same people multiple times over.

  • Lethe

    Ed Hubbard championing data that forwards the economic currency of Witch School and his personal monetary gain? That’s unpossible!

  • Ed Hubbard

    Actually I believe in promoting the economy of Pagans everywhere. That is my cause. So yes, I do believe in the good of the community, including financial. After all, I provide jobs to Pagans.

  • Charles Cosimano

    You are going about it the wrong way. Complain that the numbers are way too low and being deliberately made to look like you don’t have any people. That should give them hives.

  • kenneth

    It would, but it would also give our leaders a power trip unlike anything seen since Scientology, and they can ill afford that.

  • Anonymous

    Just in general, whenever you read “fastest growing” substitute “currently one of the smallest”. If you measure growth as a percentage difference between the group now and the group at some point in the past, the groups with the largest growth are going to be the ones where adding a few to the total makes the biggest difference.

    What would be meaningful is to understand rates of “conversion” (a problematic concept for Paganism) and retention. The most interesting thing in retention, for me, is inter-generational.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    Here is a tale out of school. The number of Unitarian Universalists reported by the means Jason mentioned, is about double the number of enrolled members of UU congregations. So even the UUs, who are highly organized relative to Paganism, can’t keep track of all this stuff.

  • Ursyl

    Are they counting those who belong to the online “Church of the Larger Fellowship” as being in a congregation?

  • Baruch Dreamstalker


  • Josephnichter

    I have two bits:

    First, “instead of building the bridges we need in areas like chaplaincy, intrafaith, and interfaith work.” Bravo Jason, bravo!

    Second, it doesn’t matter wither we are the fastest, largest growing religion or not. We should be more concerned with quality over quantity. And our religious rights and freedoms are not dependent on system validation or recognition based on our numbers.

    It simply doesn’t matter how many we are, unless you’re selling us something.

  • Apel Mjausson

    Agreed. We used to get hung up on the age of our religion but mostly we’ve let go of that. Let’s not get hung up on the numbers. The proof of any religion is in the spiritual health of its adherents.

  • Norse Alchemist

    Idk, there are times when having a large population is important. For instance, while Christianity is nominally shrinking in this country, both it and Islam are growing in the “non-Western” countries. Indeed, over in Africa there seems to be something of an underground religious war between the Christians and the Muslims over who can take over the most people. And both these branches are already, or are quickly getting, more and more fanatical. So, when you have fanatical religious who are growing rapidly (because cannon fodder doesn’t have to be quality) sometime quality won’t matter as much.

    I’m not saying we need to go out and have Pagan and Heathen revivals and do mass conversions (thought that could be kinda cool) we do need to be aware that like most things in this world, life is a numbers game, and those with the most numbers have the most voice, be it in democracy or in war.

  • Hadaig

    Bravo Josephnichter, bravo! You hit that nail square on the head.

  • kenneth

    We’re not anywhere in the vicinity of 8 million. If we were, my coven would have enough people to open a mega-church by now. As it is, we’re in the Chicago area, and we get a handful of inquiries a year, and perhaps one or two solid members out of the deal. That’s more than fine by me. We’re numerous enough that most people don’t freak anymore when they see a pentacle, and they have some rough idea what we’re about, but we’re not growing by leaps and bounds.

    It is probably accurate to say that millions or even tens of millions of people in the past decade or so have taken an interest in spiritual/self-help practices which are somewhere on the New Age spectrum. By no means do most of these folks self-identify as pagans and of those who do, an even smaller number are active or “registered” in any sense of the word.

  • Ed Hubbard

    Wow..this is one of the closest…actually if youa re in Chicago, and do not have groups of over a hundred, then you are not really looking for new members. as a lifelong Chicagoans, I have seen groups and events into the upper hundreds and lower thousands.

  • Nicholas Farrell

    “Unaffiliated” does not always mean “unreligious”. Those who mark unaffiliated may or may not be pagan, and those who are tend to have good reason, in their mind if in the very least, to check that box.

  • Anonymous

    Indeed, I almost never put my religion on any sort of survey (mostly because I don’t feel that its anyone business but my own).

  • Dave of Pagan Centered Podcast

    Welcome to weasel words. “Weasel words” is when you say something (usually in the context of marketing/advertising) that will be taken one way but is not always technically incorrect.

    For example, when someone says “as many as 8 million” then many people will think “8 million” not thinking that such a statement merely means there’s at least 1 on the planet, but certainly not more than 8 million at this time.

    Yes, this post contains many weasel words :).

  • Ed Hubbard

    Thanks….you have it closer to the truth.

  • Alex Pendragon

    Will there EVER come a time in the history of our species that a person can simply BE whatever they wish to BE without it being a threat to other people or their institutions? I didn’t become a pagan to pick a fight with anybody, I became one for the comfort of my own awareness.

  • Tommy V.

    >I didn’t become a pagan to pick a fight with anybody, I became one for the comfort of my own awareness.

    Damn skippy…that’s so right on target from my perspective as well…and said far better than I could have….

  • Deanna Shippy

    great article to say the least, good work Jason.
    As for growth we may be growing but not as much as that article clams.

  • Gavin Andrew

    One of the underlying questions here is whose credibility is most damaged by these kinds of claims – Christians, or pagans.

    Some of the most favorable mainstream media reporting that the pagan community has received in Australia over the past few years came when local Evangelical Christians made hysterical and baseless claims about attempts by witches to “curse the nation’s capital”.

    It does often seem as if Christians take a hit to their own credibility when they try to resurrect the Satanic Panic boogeyman from the 80s.

    I suppose it is also worth reflecting on whether the pagan movement has had all that much credibility to damage in the past. What is certain is that expressions of antipathy from Evangelical Christians will not go away any time soon.

  • Badwitch

    The reason why the UK 2001 census was inaccurate about the numbers of pagans in the UK is that “pagan” wasn’t one of the written choices, so only those who chose “other” and then wrote “pagan” were counted as pagan. It didn’t count as pagan those who chose “other” and then wrote “Wiccan”, “Heathen”, Druid”, or anything other than the word “pagan”. The drive in 2011 was for every pagan to chose “other” and then write “pagan – (Wiccan, druid, heathen or whatever”. It was called the Pagan Dash campaign, because we were putting “pagan” and then a dash.

  • Lori F – MN

    I know how they are getting such high numbers! Just think of all the people who don’t fit into the Christian (or even their type of Christian) mold. That’s the only way we can account for their numbers.
    I don’t recall ever answering a question about my religious beliefs. I probably would have answered ‘none of your business’

  • Christopher Blackwell

    I have never understood people, particularly Pagans , playing the numbers game, as though numbers could tell you how good a religion was, rather than just how popular it is. Considering that we have no official numbers, no central authority that all Pagans report to, or all Wiccan, or all Heathens, or all Druids, any number bandied about is at best questionable.

    Nor is rapid growth necessarily a good thing. I am Wiccan and we may have the most members, note that I say “may”. But how many of those people are going to stick with Wicca? How many of those are ever going to learn much, or do much of anything? How many phony people do we have claiming to be High Priests or High Priestess? Many of them with neither having training nor experience.

    I have been in my tradition for 25 years, but I would never dare call myself a High Priest, because that requires training that I don’t have, and organization abilities that I don’t have, not too mention people skills that I don’t have either. So I won’t claim to be what I am not.

    Who are we trying to impress anyway. I would be practicing Wicca, if I were the only person doing so. I did not join it in hopes of taking over the world.

  • Pitch313

    It may not be so much “the numbers” so much as the variety of uses that we put those numbers to.

    Too often, numbers are thrown up to indicate something intended to persuade.

    Paganism’s growing larger–Jump on our real Pagan band wagon now! Paganism’s growing–Jump on our really against Paganism band wagon now, before it’s too late! We Pagans are many. No, wait, we’re just a few. Here. There. Everywhere. Not here.

    I suspect that a lot of good estimates and tallies of folks affiliated with Paganism are probably on the low side. A little. Because some who will not check “Pagan” but are outnumber those who will, but aren’t.

    I also think that it’s sorta funny that we Pagans highly value small numbers when it comes to claims about possessing the authentic and accurate secrets of Trads and magical lineages, but high numbers when it comes to assertions of identity and solidarity to the outside, non-Pagan world.

  • Alice C. “A.C.” Fisher Aldag

    I realize that statistics for Paganism is difficult to pin down, but any idea of the actual rate mentioned in the editorial — wondering how many people took a class with Witch School and then stayed with Wicca? Many folks start out Wiccan then gravitate toward some other Pagan or Polytheistic path. Wonder if there’s any stats for recidivism back to Christianity?

  • Ed Hubbard

    Actually I do have basic rates, plus secondary movements from Witch School as well as the return rate as well. We have all these numbers, mostly private, and some are pretty amazing. No one really cares about it, until someone like God’s Ghostbusters comes along, and then everyone follows. Just like Jason did.

  • Entdinglichung

    apart from ethnic statistics, religious statistics are generally the most dodgy ones … one or two years ago, there was a discussion among German evangelicals if exaggerating missionary success (which they do not have in Germany) is ok (because it boosts donations) or not

  • Ed Hubbard

    Thank You Jason, and I love you. You could not have proven my point better. Of course, you are a blogger, and like most journalists deal in a pool of Press Releases, but instead of asking me “A Single Question?”, you decided to make your opinion known without even asking where I get my numbers. This is due to extreme bias that permeates the media. As a left of center blogger with a Pagan Focus, vs. a Mainstream focus, of course you took offense, and that is exactly the reaction expected. So thank you, I really appreciate you making your point and simultaneously making mine. Any time you want to discuss my numbers, how I derived them, and oh yes, actually ask me a question, you know where to find me.

  • Alice C. “A.C.” Fisher Aldag

    Hey Ed, how dare you attempt to educate the lower middle class and blue collar workers about Paganism, when everyone knows that is only a privilege for elite scholars? And youse guys should just give away your services for free. Everyone knows that all money for education comes from “the government”, right? You shouldn’t advertise Wicca or send out press releases, either, because that information should be whispered into the ears of The Chosen Few by the Goddess herself. Nor should you try to make Paganism acceptable by the mainstream taxpayer who mows his lawn and goes bowling, because then Paganism won’t be mysterious and edgy enough for the artsy intellectual crowd. Ed, you should stop that right now!

  • Star Foster

    I think classifying Witch School as “lower class” isn’t helpful. They do useful work and fill a niche in Paganism. Take the hostility down a notch and try not to insert class warfare where it doesn’t exist.

  • Alice C. “A.C.” Fisher Aldag

    I think we’re misidentifying the socioeconomic group “lower middle class” with the perception of “lower class” as an undesirable condition.

    I was being sarcastic in response to some of the commentators who were suggesting that Ed and Witch School are only in it for the money. It was implied that advertising and charging a fee for education are somehow bad. (Ed got it and was not offended.)

    There is absolutely no question that the blogroll of Patheos is aimed toward academics. And there is frequently a condescending tone made by some commentators toward people who haven’t a conventional education.

    Witch school seeks to provide an education for those of us who may not have had an opportunity for college. You are very right in that they do useful work and fill a niche.

  • Star Foster

    That’s strange. I’m the Managing Editor and I have a GED. Not everyone featured in the links on the main portal page or on my blogroll are academics. And a few make a living by teaching Pagan religions.

  • Teo Bishop

    I’m a high school graduate with only small amount of college education, and I blog on Patheos.

    I seek to elevate the conversation and dialogue on my blog above petty bickering, but I work hard to never condescend to anyone. We can be high-minded without being snobby.

  • Apuleius Platonicus

    The folks at Pew recently took a stab at trying to reliably estimate how many practitioners of African Traditional Religion there are in sub-Saharan Africa. Their basic approach was very sound, but the implementation was somewhat flawed by Pew’s heavily Christian bias (which makes it very difficult for them to objectively define non-Christian religions).

    The methodology they used was very simple: come up with a list of characteristic beliefs and practices associated with African Traditional Religions, and then ask people about those beliefs and practices. Even though there were some serious problems with the list they came up with (it emphasizes malefic and “diabolical” characteristics that Christians naturally assume are part of “primitive” religions), the list is really not that bad, and the results were quite interesting.

    The bottom line is that Pew found that while only 10-15% of people surveyed self-identified as ATR practitioners, twice that many people demonstrated a “high level of traditional belief and practice.” These beliefs and practices included things like: belief in reincarnation, participation in traditional rituals, possession of ritual objects, use of traditional healers, etc.

    For more on the Pew study in question see these links:
    You might be Pagan if …
    200 Million African Pagans

  • Christina Oakley Harrington

    Yes, Jason! This needs saying. The narrative of explosive grown isn’t helpful or accurate. Gordon Melton pointed out, over a decade ago, that all religions have ‘throughput’ — people join, yes, but people drop off and fade away from religions.

    I put out the number of 100,000 in the UK in about 1995-1997, in the interviews at the time. I arrived at this number from the fact that 8,000 people read or subscribed at that time to Pagan Dawn magazine, the official magazine of the Pagan Federation. I knew that only about one pagan in ten read the magazine: this I knew from visiting pagan moots, rituals, gatherings and socials for a seven-hear period. I multiplied by twelve and got to a rough estimate of 100,000 pagans in the UK.

    Like other responsible people being interviewed, we never said it was the fastest growing, at that time. It may have been then, but as you rightly point out, we just can’t know that. My feeling now in the UK is that it’s not attracting floods of new interest, more a steady flow. Possibly just as many gently trickle away from paganism at about the same rate.

    Thanks, Jason, for a great article.

  • Jonathan Korman

    Hmmnn. For scale, best estimates show about 14 million Jews worldwide, about 5 million of them in the US. Mormons tally up about the same. That’s about five times Pagan numbers, then; a different weight class, but not THAT different.

  • Alice C. “A.C.” Fisher Aldag

    I’m thinking if we counted all the indigenous Pagans there are more than Jewish people.

    Are we, BTW? Counting indigenous folks, that is.