Pagan-Dash, the Census, and the Pagan Umbrella

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  June 18, 2011 — 21 Comments

Australia is having a census this year, and local activists are again encouraging Pagans of all stripes to list their religion, and to do so in a uniform manner (Australia and the UK, unlike the United States, do ask questions regarding religious affiliation).

“Mark Hepworth is a Gardnerian Wiccan with Greek Reconstructionist beliefs but the Sydney IT worker would like to be counted as a pagan first. ”A lot of other faiths see us as the people that got too much into Harry Potter and decided to call themselves a witch instead of an actual group of people who do have a serious spirituality,” he says. And it’s like other faiths that pagans would like to be treated, at least in a statistical sense. The Pagan Awareness Network, of which Mr Hepworth is vice-president, is urging its many and diverse faith paths – which include Druidism, Shamanism and Lesbian Feminist Goddess Worship – to nominate paganism as their religious category in this year’s census. Mr Hepworth hopes the weight of people nominating ”pagan” as their primary faith, followed by their variant after a dash, will prompt it to be reclassified as an umbrella term by the Australian Bureau of Statistics – the first step in consolidating pagan numbers and gaining wider recognition as a legitimate religious choice.”

For Australian advocacy groups like The Pagan Awareness Network getting the disparate and often fiercely individualist Pagan, polytheist, and Heathen religions under the same umbrella term is an important step towards fighting what the Australian Human Rights Commission calls “widespread” distrust and “hostility” toward modern Pagans and other minority faith groups in the country.

“Paganism is an umbrella term that covers a number of nature-based spiritual traditions. The consultations and submissions revealed significant areas of concern regarding paganism and pagans’ ability to practice their faith in Australia. Pagans believe that the lack of information or understanding of their faith complicates issues; many in the wider community assume that Satanism is a part of paganism, when it is separate and distinct.Recognition was raised as the biggest issue that underlies other matters. According to the Pagan Awareness Network, there are approximately 30 000 people in Australia who follow a pagan or nature-based religion, and this is confirmed by the 2006 Census, which also shows the significant, recent growth of paganism.”

Pagan groups in both Australia and the U.K. are fairly certain that there are far more Pagans living in their respective countries than are shown in previous census results, and a “Pagan-Dash” initiative has been embraced by organizers from both nations. In Britain around 40,000 individuals labeled themselves as Pagans, Wiccans, or Druids (making them the 7th largest faith grouping in the UK) during the last census. However, British scholars like Ronald Hutton think there may be more than 250,000 Pagans according to an estimate he made in 2001.

“Ten years ago 42,000 people declared themselves as Pagans – the seventh highest number for any UK religion – but some experts believe the true figure was nearer 250,000 – and is significantly higher now.”

The 2006 Australian census found that there were around 30,000 Pagans in Australia, a growth of only 3,000 individuals from 2001. The numbers made sociologist (and Pagan) Douglas Ezzy wonder if modern Paganism’s rapid growth had now slowed.

“We just heard the figures for the Australian 2006 Census. They are: Paganism 16,000 (11,000 in 2001), Witchcraft/Wicca 8,000 (9,000 in 2001), Other Nature Religion: 2,000 (3,000 in 2001). That makes a change from a total of 23,000 (0.12%) in 2001 to 26,000 (0.13%) in 2006 … so, basically, the number of Pagans recorded on the Australian Census in 2006 is around 0.13 to 0.14% of the population and has grown in size by about 13% since the 2001 Census. Not bad, but nothing like the growth the movement had earlier.”

But has growth leveled off, or were individuals reluctant to identify themselves as Pagans or Witches? Australian Witch (and former reality television star) Stacey Demarco notes that fear could be artificially suppressing an accurate count of Australia’s Pagans.

“Stacey Demarco, a witch and author from the northern beaches, says she is “obviously very much out of the broom closet” but many pagans weren’t. The fear of outing themselves affects how they treat the optional religion question on their census form.”

The British census was conducted in March and we’re still awaiting data (maybe summary findings next year), the Australian census takes place in August. While Australia organized a Pagan-Dash campaign for the 2006 census, it did not seem to be widely adopted by respondents. So results from the 2011 censuses will be the first test of how effective Pagan-Dash will be in getting an accurate count of Pagans. Whatever the results, this new data will be of huge importance for Pagan groups and the academics who study them.

For modern Pagans in both countries dramatic (or even modest) increases in numbers could mean a corresponding increase in legitimacy and political clout. This would make landmark events like The Druid Network receiving religious charity status a less publicly contentious issue in the UK, while in Australia it could mean a turnaround in the seemingly significant level of distrust and hostility described in the Human Rights Commission report. As some debate how useful or accurate the label “Pagan” is, that umbrella term, however imperfect (even with a dash), seems to be the current default for large-scale activism.

Jason Pitzl-Waters

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