By Helen A. Berger
One need only remember the predictions made by some of the leading sociological theorists in the middle of the last century -- that religion was dying out in the West to be replaced by science -- to know that sociologists make poor soothsayers. I, therefore, am going to limit my remarks to a discussion of a trend -- the growth of solitary practitioners and its implications -- that that has become apparent by comparing the results of two surveys I have conducted over fifteen years apart: the Pagan Census (PC) and the Pagan Census Revisited (PCR). The PC, which was conducted with Andras Arthen, received almost 3,000 responses from Pagans in the United States. The results are published in Voices from the Pagan Census (Berger et al 2003) and are available on line at Murray Research Archive at Harvard University. The PCR, which is currently being conducted online on survey monkey, is an updated, revised, and expanded version of the PC and has received almost 8,000 responses internationally. Because the first survey was in the US only and the second international, I have checked that no significant differences exist in the data discussed between US and international responses. Although both surveys bear the name census, neither is one, nor are they based on a random sample, nor would such a thing be possible in a dispersed and sometimes secretive community such as that of contemporary Pagans. The data, nonetheless, are the best available as they are based on a large and well-distributed sample.
In comparing the two surveys I found that the number of Pagans who claim to practice alone has grown from 51% to 79%. The growth of solitary practitioners has been facilitated by books and the Internet. During the 1960s and 70s when the religion was initially spreading, it was passed from person-to-person, most commonly in groups, such as covens. This has clearly changed as in the PCR only 36% state that they were trained in a group. A series of "how-to" books geared to the solitary practitioner made it possible for individuals to learn about the religion and practice alone. The growth and increased availability of the Internet has further aided in the dissemination of information about the religion and in some instances has provided a "place" for Pagans to practice, although this is rare (Cowan 2005). Books remain more influential in Pagans' memories of how they first learned about the religion than any other source. In the PCR 37% claim that they first learned about the religion from books; 30% from a friend and 17% from the Internet. Even with the influx of the young, a generation that is known for being computer savvy and for not reading, Pagans remain a group that buys books and reads.
The growth of solitary practitioners might suggest an increase of social isolation. But this does not appear to be the case. In the second survey, I ask a series of questions about the degree to which respondents were in contact with other Pagans. Two-thirds meet with other Pagans at least once a year for spiritual activities, with one-third doing so monthly. Just over 75% of Pagans meet with other Pagans for social reasons at least once a year, with approximately a quarter of them doing so weekly and 14% doing so daily. Most communicate with other Pagans on a regular basis. Only 15% never communicate with other Pagans in person; and over 30% have weekly and another 20% daily interactions with other Pagans. Somewhat surprisingly, 27% never communicate with other Pagans on the telephone, but again the majority does. Only 10% never communicate by Internet. The majority of Pagan parents in the PCR, like those in the PC, report raising their children in the parents' own spiritual path.
Almost three-fourths (73%) of the PCR respondents have practiced in a group at some time, indicating that although most are currently solitaries this appears to be a situation that is somewhat fluid, with people entering into and leaving groups. Furthermore, the definition of what constitutes a solitary practitioner may vary. In West Chester, PA I spoke with members of a group that self-defined as a group of solitaries. When asked how it was possible to practice both as a solitary and with others I was told that each person had her or his own form of spirituality and that no one attempted to change or reform another's practice. They joined together to discuss their spirituality and to participate in Sabbats and perform other rituals. One person would lead the ritual in her or his tradition and others might add things from their own spiritual practice. Individuals, therefore, may be defining themselves as solitary practitioners when they believe that their practice is not consistent with any particular or standard form or denomination of Paganism even if they are joining with others for religious purposes on a regular basis.