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


  • Tearlach

    I am a British Pagan, and like so many others in this country I am firmly in the “Broom Closet”! There are a number of reasons for this. Although we don’t have many of the same problems with evangelical Christianity here in the UK, there are still some who would treat pagan beliefs as a matter of concern (especially as my wife, who is also a closet pagan, is a teacher). We also have problems with ANY strong religious belief being treated as a sign that you are barking mad, and I know that coming out would cause real damage to my credibility as an analyst.

    However, for the first time my wife and I gave our religion honestly in this most recent UK census, and I would encourage any Australian pagans to do the same with their’s. The data is held very securely (as far as I am aware) and while we may not be willing to personally come out of the “broom closet” it can only be a good thing to let the world know that our community exists and how many share our convictions.

    • Thank you for sharing this, Tearlach. Here in one of the most liberal parts of the US I still know a ton of people who are in the closet about their religion. The concern is always over their careers and their children being harassed, which is more than understandable.

      I also understand the frustration of the polarization created between Atheist extremists and religious fundamentalists. The annoying thing is that it is people of minority religions/practices that lose no matter what in this climate.

  • Anonymous

    “Pagan” as an umbrella term is not just a great idea, it is simply a reflection of reality. And it is not just a reality for Pagans, but for all religious designations.

    Even if one goes past the top level categories and down to the subsects, these also turn out to be very loosely defined “identities” rather than neatly separated, internally coherent groupings.

    Take “Anglicanism” for example, or “Tibetan Buddhism”, or “Vaishnava”, or “Hasidism”, and so forth. Each of those covers a great deal of territory and are nearly as difficult to nail down as the broader categories these are each part of.

    • Joseph

      I agree, but it’s also a question of appropriateness of a given label for a given venue. On a census form, for example, I would have no issue whatsoever with using the term “pagan” in order to make a demographic point. When talking with someone who is Wiccan, however, I might use the term “Heathen” to describe myself, in order to capture more of the granularity that would be significant to them, but not necessarily to a government sociologist. And in another context, I might use the term “Tribalist Asatru” to describe myself, since that would better convey an understanding of just what it is I do, to people who would be able to understand and appreciate the specific label.

      • Anonymous

        I would gladly sign up as “Heathen”. In Germanic languages “Heathen” just means “Pagan”. In German it’s “Heide”, in Dutch, “Heidens”, Danish & Norwegian, “Hedensk”, Icelandic, “Heiðinna”, Swedish, “Hedniska”. An argument could definitely be made that the more generic (and default) term in English should also be Heathen.

        • Caravelle

          In French and Breton, “Heathen” is “Paien” and “Pagan” which come from the Latin “Paganus”.

          English just did what it usually does, which is take a Germanic word and a Latin word that mean the exact same thing and introduce nuance by using both.

          • Anonymous

            As a general rule, the Germanic alternative is the one that has greater “punch”. This is one of the “go-to” rules for effective writing in English: as much as possible use Germanic words as opposed to Latinate ones. The standard illustration for why this works is that when we are in trouble we cry out for “HELP!”, not for “ASSISTANCE!”

  • Another possibility of why Pagan numbers might not be accurately reported is that people answering the Census may be choosing the unwritten option: “None of the Government’s Darn Business”.

  • Ed the Pagan

    Thanks for this. I do believe there is a slow down in the number of people identifying as Pagan, especially in The USA, as it seems that any form of religion is becoming questionable, and the rise of Secular Atheism among the youth.

    Yet, Paganism, especially Wicca, is on a growth spurt of epic size in India, South America, and in parts of Africa. Over the enxt decade we will see our major growth in these places.

    The largest difficulty, regardless of the Pagan Umbrella, or the individual faiths, is the lack of wide scale support for members when they face discrimination. The resources are so thin, we have to choose celebrity cases, than deal with them all. The second area lacking support is even the most simple crisis situations where we can not help our own as the majority of members can barely help themselves. This creates a situation where only the most independent and self-reliant people will practice, and they will do so as individuals and let the community be damned.

    Why try to be under a Umbrella that is full of holes?

    • I have a contrary theory. I think many Pagans are downright *insert emotion here* to identify as such in the US so they don’t bring it up in conversation, they don’t participate in the public Pagan groups in their locale. They’re not in the closet, but they aren’t outwardly Pagan and may not wear any Pagan symbols.

      Instead, they network with their group of friends with similar faith views and form islands of Paganism with those they don’t mind be associated with – and don’t mind being in ritual with.

      I think this then causes the issue we seem to have in the Pagan media when attempting to reach all Pagans in a timely manner. For a community of millions, we seem to only reach tens of thousands in the Pagan Media. This could be caused by this island effect where people just (perhaps inadvertently) close themselves off from the rest of Paganism.

      All of the above I wrote is just educated speculation, so wouldn’t mind being proven wrong on this one.

      • Henry

        I wouldn’t say inadvertently.

        • Baruch Dreamstalker

          Perhaps Pagans are like many other Americans of limited resources in hard times, and see other Pagans in distress as one more charitable opportunity they can’t afford to take up.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    How basic is protection of religious freedom in UK and Aussie law?

  • Anonymous

    hi! boy, am i glad you moved here – and that Fred [slacktavist] announced it, or i wouldn’t know you exist.

    it gets pretty lonely, when most of the places i frequent are either mostly-atheist or mostly-nice-Christians [i avoid the fundies for self-preservation]
    and i live in an area of the US that has an active pagan community – it’s just that i’ve become *very* disabled, and can’t go out like i used to, so i don’t see anyone much and etc.

    i suppose i could have looked for online pagan groups, but it just never occured to me – i know that i’m a bit weird about how i “don’t hide” [even if i don’t advertise] so i just never thought someone would HAVE a blog like this.

    silly me.

    and you have this sidebar of a pagan blogosphere! where the hell have i been?

    thanks for coming here to patheos [i’m SO glad, really really glad – i like Fred but… the rest of this community was NOT for me, and they REALLY needed some polytheist types around!] and i hope it’s ok if i pop in occasionally?

  • It would be interesting to see on a Census level how many throughout the United States were of the Old Religion. Many do not understand we as a group when working as one are rather large in numbers. I have reconnected with many of my old high school classmates and have found a good number of them follow the path of old and have from childhood, but out of the sterotype and fear they kept it quite only when they saw my beliefs did they come out to me.

    I think it is time we stand up and allow our numbers to be counted, we are after all people with the same rights, just a different path of belief.


    • From the US census website:
      “Public Law 94-521 prohibits us from asking a question on religious affiliation on a mandatory basis; therefore, the Bureau of the Census is not the source for information on religion.”

  • Two things here. Census results are important in Australia, as they assist governments in allocating community grants and funding. It might be different in the US system but for us down under this includes grants for religious communities to run events and provide community services. So far Pagan organizations have been unable to access community funding at any level. By contrast, the Catholic Church has been granted hundreds of millions of dollars over the last four years or so to stage events such as World Youth Day and celebrations for the canonization of Australia’s first saint.

    Lack of awareness (and it has to be said, fear of angering bodies such as the Australian Christian Lobby – it is a genuine body – ) by governments means that even when measured on a per-capita basis, Pagans are not getting our fair share of community-level funding for events and services. If more people put “Pagan” on the Census it will increase the impetus to see this inequity redressed.

    This is also why the Human Rights Commission Report was a significant win – the local Pagan community was recognized as an actual minority religious group facing real challenges concerning freedom to worship. That this was a revelation to those who compiled the report (instead of being, like, bleeding obvious) tells us a great deal about the religious landscape in Australia.

    As I have said before, I don’t think we would have registered on the Human Rights Commission’s radar to the extent we did if not for the impressive US Pagan presence at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 2009. I think that raised a lot of eyebrows locally. So thanks again to all of you who made the journey!

  • I guess what I’m not 100% clear on – are the census records for the UK and Oz open public records?