There’s been a recent flurry of news about the Church of Scientology, none of it good. A puffed-up press release “advertorial” at The Atlantic backfired disastrously, a critical investigation of the church by an acclaimed investigative journalist is being published tomorrow (which follows a 2011 critical journalistic history), and a Buzzfeed expose into the church’s recent infrastructure growth scheme has them asking if the entire enterprise is self-destructing.
“Scientology leader David Miscavige has been trumpeting his church’s “milestone year,” but the mysterious religion is alienating scores of its most faithful followers with what they call a real estate scam. With anger mounting and defectors fleeing, this may be more than a fleeting crisis; it may be a symptom of an institution in decline.”
What caught my eye particularly in the Buzzfeed investigation was a section on the declining numbers of the church.
And the ranks of the faithful are dropping. In 2008, there were 25,000 self-identifying American Scientologists, down by over a half from 55,000 in 2001, according to the American Religious Identification Survey. (Over the same time period, the number of Wiccans more than doubled from 134,000 to 342,000.) The 2011 British census showed a total of 2,418 Scientologists across England and Wales; about 73 times as many Brits identified themselves as “Jedi.”
The comparison to Wicca, I think, is far more telling than it appears. Why would a faith with tons of money and infrastructure, with a whole host of famous adherents, decline by more than half between 2001 and 2008? Why would Wiccans, who have none of those things, more than double? Minority religions have several different options for growth and survival, and the adherents of those faiths (and their leaders) have to decide which ones suit them best. Some of the success of Wicca comes down to the choices it didn’t make that Scientology did.
- Wicca chose to reject institutional hierarchy: Whether you’re talking about hidebound Gardnerians, or a newly-formed eclectic group, there is no Wiccan “pope,” no central authority that can dictate terms. There are clergy, yes, and respected elders, but they don’t control the lives of their fellow adherents. Anyone is free to leave at any time, and as our own history has shown, Wiccans are free to create a new tradition if the old one doesn’t please them.
- Wicca doesn’t charge: Early on it was decided that while Wiccans might charge for a class, or to convey knowledge, you could not charge for initiations, or for greater access to its mysteries. A clear separation between, say, charging for a tarot reading, and charging for initiatory training, has endured throughout all forms of Wicca. Anyone who does charge for initiations is quickly repudiated, and usually quits before long.
- Wicca has deemphasized the need for physical buildings: While there’s a growing debate about it now, throughout most of its history Wicca has deemphasized the need for “churches” and buildings. Most Wiccans gather in homes, or outside in nature. A small-group dynamic was instilled early on, and that has endured (other Pagan religions, like Druidry, have approached this issue in a different manner, but that’s a different story). A real estate scheme like the one described in BuzzFeed would never work because the entire concept would seem alien to our aesthetics. At best, we might collectively build libraries and community centers someday, but it remains to be seen how successful those initiatives will be over the longer term.
- We don’t hunt our heretics: It’s pretty hard to be heretical in a decentralized, non-hierarchical, faith, be we occasionally have figures who are deeply polarizing, or who are seen as crossing some ethical line. For the most part, barring extreme cases, these figures are all still operating and practicing within the larger Wiccan milieu. There isn’t a Wiccan punishment system aside from getting kicked out of a group, or perhaps an entire tradition. Even if that does happen, that person will still be allowed to go to pan-Wiccan and pan-Pagan events. In short, our heretics largely feel just fine. Most even pride themselves on their infamous status.
- We don’t recruit, and we don’t really care if famous people are members: Wicca grows organically, through small groups, word of mouth, books, and people reading web sites. We almost have a collective allergic reaction to the thought of proselytizing, and the aggressive marketing techniques of Scientology would give most Wiccans hives. Further, while a famous (or semi-famous) person will express interest in Wicca, we don’t really do much about it. No celebrity goes on PR tours for Wicca, and most find our faith a personal matter they don’t discuss much. Most celebrity moments are happy (or sometimes unhappy) accidents. It’s just not where our priorities are, and we believe that people will end up in Wicca if that’s where they are supposed to be.
In short, we’ve grown by being the anti-Scientology. As a result, we’ve also avoided most of their pitfalls, including the decadence and paranoia that comes from amassing more than a billion dollars in liquid assets. Sometimes Wiccans will bemoan the choices we’ve collectively made over the years, but we’re still growing, and we’re working on gaining allies, not with the rich and powerful, but with other faiths that share our values. So when I look at the Scientology headlines, I’m thankful for all the paths Wicca didn’t take.