Circling Alone: Paganism’s Solitary Eclectic Future?

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  November 29, 2011 — 53 Comments

Perhaps one of most thought-provoking presentations I attended at the American Academy of Religion’s Annual Meeting in San Francisco was that by sociologist Helen A. Berger at the Contemporary Pagan Studies Group panel “Pagan Analysis and Critique of Religion.” Her talk, “Fifteen Years of Continuity and Change within the American Pagan Community,” was a flurry of statistical information  gleaned from a 2009 re-visitation of the Pagan Census project. This isn’t the first time Berger, co-author of “Voices from the Pagan Census: A National Survey of Witches and Neo-Pagans in the United States,” has presented some initial finding from this new collection of data; in late 2010 she wrote an editorial for Patheos.com’s “Future of Paganism” series where she revealed where the data was leading.

Helen A. Berger presenting at the AAR.

Helen A. Berger presenting at the AAR.

“In comparing the two surveys [The Pagan Census and the Pagan Census Revisited] 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. […] Parallel to the growth of solitary practitioners is the increase in people who state that their primary form of practice is Eclectic Paganism, which is the most common designation, with 53% of the respondents claiming this designation.  Additionally, 22% state that they are spiritual but dislike labels.”

That essay got very little attention at the time, even though it held some remarkable data of interest to our communities. Perhaps there were so many thought-provoking editorials produced for that series that it was drowned out a bit? In any case, the collection of religion scholars, Pagan scholars, journalists, and interested local Pagan community members, were very interested in what Professor Berger had to say about her (as yet unpublished) data. We found out that 40.8% of young self-identified Pagans never or “nearly never” meet with other Pagans for the purposes of ritual or religious observance. We found that a vast majority, 79%, primarily practice alone (solitary), and we found that Wicca, once the statistical heavyweight of the modern Pagan movement, is quickly losing ground to Pagans with eclectic practices. At one point Berger made an allusion to Robert Putnam’s book “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community”, saying that a similar book about the Pagan community could be called “Circling Alone.”

How often do we communicate with other Pagans?

How often do we communicate with other Pagans?

However, while Pagans are increasingly solitary in practice, we do interact with one another, but that interaction is happening increasingly on the Internet. More than half of Pagans today use blogs, message boards, and social media to connect with the wider Pagan world, the only method of communication and interaction that garnered a majority. Are such methods of communication and connection enough to bind us together as a movement?

“Paganism is a community of spiritual individualists that is well integrated, on both the local level through gatherings, festivals and open Sabbats and on the national and international level through websites, message boards, and blogs. As much of the integration takes place on the Internet or person-to-person, it is unclear how important umbrella organizations such as Covenant of the Goddess or Pagan Associations will be in the future. However, the desire for individuals to practice together and to get together for spiritual purposes suggests that they may grow in import as they help to organize gatherings, rituals, and classes. Paganism will continue to provide a new image of what religion can be in a postmodern world; one without churches or clear boundaries, based on books and the Internet and individuals gathering together and interacting and then returning to practice what they see as their own eclectic religion.”

Berger stressed repeatedly during her presentation that she hasn’t come to any firm conclusions about the data she’s collected in 2009, and what it might mean for modern Paganism’s future. That said, she did wonder if modern Pagans were building a new model of religious growth that flies in the face of the traditional growth arcs (the building of congregations, for example). Paganism is still growing, albeit not at the explosive levels of the 1990s, and if our movement survives over the long term it could completely change ideas of how religions survive and thrive in a post-modern (and increasingly post-Christian) world. I’m hoping we see more from Berger on this data soon, and I’m hoping to contact her for a more in-depth interview about the findings she presented at the American Academy of Religion’s Annual Meeting. For now, I think our organizations, activists, and clergy need to start grappling with the directions our movement is headed, and shift their expectations and methods accordingly.

Jason Pitzl-Waters

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