Archives For Helen Berger

TROMSØ, No. –American researcher James R. Lewis, a professor of religious studies at the University of Tromsø, has decided it’s time to take the pulse of Pagan communities once again. Since before the advent of the internet, there have been several such surveys, each with its own specific area of focus. While the new Pagan III survey has some questions that have caused some participants to scratch their heads, other academics are largely supportive of any effort to more accurately describe the dynamics within Pagan communities.


[Graphic Courtesy LWV / Flickr]

Lewis’ work reaches back specifically to a census survey conceived by Andras Corban-Arthen in the 1980s. EarthSpirit Community, which Corban-Arthen founded, was responsible for the dissemination, receipt, and initial tabulation of the questionnaires. Then, they were turned over to social scientist Helen Berger, who had secured a small grant from her university to hire some graduate students to do the heavy-duty number crunching. Berger went on to publish the findings as Voices from the Pagan Census: A National Survey of Witches and Neo-Pagans in the United States.

Berger conducted two subsequent surveys that Lewis was involved in: Pagan Census Revisited I and II. “Since then,” Lewis wrote in the introduction to the Pagan III survey, “I have had new research questions arise. I have also been working with a new approach that provides select information on the development of Pagans and Paganism over time.”

That approach is one he calls “quasi-longitudinal.” Instead of tracking specific individuals over many years as in a true longitudinal study, he asks survey respondents paired questions that compare their views now with the ones they held when they started identifying as Pagan. He further explained his motivation and approach to The Wild Hunt.

When Helen Berger and I first worked on the Pagan Census Revisited questionnaire (PCR-I), we were trying to be comprehensive, and trying to reach as many people as possible (the final count was 8000+). We included whatever we thought of at the time, such as political orientation, social attitudes, comparative pieces from the General Social Survey and the like. In the PCR-II, both Helen and I asked some supplementary questions for some specific issues we were researching at that time. I added some additional paranormal items from the Baylor Religion Survey, plus I tried out a couple of ‘before and after’ questions — on marital/relationship status and educational level. It was my interest in further exploring the ‘before and after’ approach that was my primary motive for the Pagan III questionnaire.

An online survey has its limits, but it’s an approach which has been used before for collecting data about Pagans, and Lewis believes it’s still the most effective. “The obvious challenge is that the Pagan movement is a decentralized, anarchistic ‘movement’ (if we can even call it that) rather than a formal organization with a membership roll. No sample of this subculture is without its drawbacks,” he said. However, “Previous research by people other than myself have found that the great majority of Pagans spend much of their time on the internet, so I don’t think that’s a significant problem. A situation where that would becomes a factor is if one was researching the native faith people in the former Soviet Union. The internet is popular in those countries, but it’s not in every household like it is in western countries.”

Dr. Gwendolyn Reece, who conducted her own Pagan survey that was subsequently published in The Pomegranate, took the Pagan III and compared the two. “[Pagan III] is focused more on a number of beliefs and ideologies, as well as paranormal experiences, including trying to understand how these things changed for people once they became Pagan. Mine was focused on practices, obstacles to practices, and experiences in interacting with the dominant culture,” she said. In addition, she only asked questions of Pagans in the United States, rather than the worldwide approach Lewis is taking.

Lewis said that he is working with some Norwegian colleagues who asked that he include additional questions to further their own research. Some of these questions are on the paranormal, and others focus on conspiracy theories.Any place where the Pagan III survey link has placed shared on Facebook, also likely contains comments discussing some of these questions and the motivations behind them.

For example, a question about whether or not the respondent believes that some events have an official version designed to hide the truth from the public has drawn concern from some Facebook users who feel that events, such as the Tuskegee experiments, are proof of such activities. However, they are concerned that responding in the affirmative could give the impression that Pagans believe in wild conspiracy Reece observed:

I do remember that there were a lot of questions that seemed to be testing our alignment/divergence from the New Age, but that I had a bunch of questions about the phrasing on some of the conspiracy questions that I think could be misleading. I left comments about that. So, for example, do I believe that a small group has secret influence over the government? Yes, dark money and super PACs [but] not the Illuminati. I don’t think we need conspiracy theories about the Illuminati when we have the Koch Brothers, ALEC, etc.

Christopher Blackwell, who produced the ACTION newsletter for AREN, had similar concerns. He told The Wild Hunt:

I was asked whether I was married, then if I was widowed. Neither quite covered my situation. I had a partner who had died. Long term as it was we were not married, and nor was I exactly widowed. So in the case of those two questions I could not find choice that was quite right. Another common problem in a great many surveys that there is wording so that you tend to determine the answer by the wording of a value loaded question, rather than a neutral questions that gives you the actual opinion. Say that you ask, ‘Are you for Monsanto poisoning your food?’ instead of asking, ‘Do you believe GMO foods are safe?’

Questions evaluating views on the roles of Jews and Muslims in conspiracies weren’t worded in the same way, giving cause for concern that the results wouldn’t accurately depict how Pagans regard members of these two groups. In another area, a question about views of the nature of deity left some respondents, including so-called “hard” polytheists, without an adequate option other than “none of these.” Lewis said that questions about that particular type of belief “has simply not been of interest to me.”

Nevertheless, the Pagan III survey has already received more than the modest minimum of 500 responses, which Lewis established, and people such as Reece and Blackwell are encouraging participation despite their concerns. The questions dealing with views before and after the onset of Paganism in an individual’s life go to the heart of Lewis’ research questions, while those dealing with paranormal and conspiracy ideas are included to support other work entirely.

Blackwell said, “I still was certain that I wanted to take this survey to help establish some sort of benchmark of where the Pagan communities were at this point, so that we can compare with it both older surveys, and surveys in the future. It was mostly a very good and well thought out survey. Only by taking part in such surveys when possible, gives us the information to plan or understand anything about our developing communities.”

Reece agreed. “I do think it is worth taking any of these types of surveys because we need to be establishing some good base-line data about our communities.”

Pagan Community Notes is a series focused on news originating from within the Pagan community. Reinforcing the idea that what happens to and within our organizations, groups, and events is news, and news-worthy. My hope is that more individuals, especially those working within Pagan organizations, get into the habit of sharing their news with the world. So let’s get started!

Sociologist Helen Berger discussing new Pagan census data (more on that soon).A follow-up to the Pagan Census Revisited is now up and asking for Pagan participation. Here’s a quote from sociologist Helen A. Berger, who is overseeing this project along with James R. Lewis: “The PCR II is a follow up to the Pagan Census Revisited, which itself is a follow up the Pagan Census. You don’t need to have responded to either of those to participate in this survey. This survey is short, they contain some of the question we wished we had asked in the PCR. For those of you who don’t know about the PC it was the first large scale survey of US Pagans. I published a book on it Voices from the Pagan Census and all the results are online at the Murray Institute at Harvard University for any and all to view. The more information we have about contemporary Pagans the better for understanding the religion, its participants and how it might be changing. Thanks to those of you who have taken the time to complete the former surveys and those of you who complete this one.” I encourage wide participation in this survey, as it shapes research into our communities, and gives insight to those of us inside of the movement. The 2009 revisitation data was a big eye-opener for many, and it will be important to know how we are changing over the years. Click here to take the survey (

Morning Glory Zell

Morning Glory Zell

As has been reported here recently, Pagan elder Morning Glory Zell has been in and out of the hospital due to kidney issues and other complications. Her condition is serious enough that a celebration of her life is being planned for April 19th. Quote: “Celebration of Life for Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart. Our intention is to give her the energy to stay with us as long as possible. Come celebrate Morning Glory’s life while she is still here to enjoy your stories: How did you first meet Morning Glory? How has she touched your life? We are working with a few people on plans to video-tape your stories, poetry, song – whatever you bring to share.” Morning Glory’s partner, Oberon Zell, adds that “Morning Glory remains at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital; however, she is rallying against the pneumonia.” Today, April 14th, is Oberon and Morning Glory’s 40th wedding anniversary, and our congratulations go out to them on this milestone. “The Wizard and the Witch: Seven Decades of Counterculture, Magick & Paganism,” which focuses on the lives of Oberon and Morning Glory Zell, was recently released by Llewellyn Worldwide.

9931d7a41cff52affc54a1c0f3082178_largePagan singer-songwriter Arthur Hinds, a member of the band Emerald Rose, recently launched a Kickstarter to fund a new CD entitled “Dance In The Fire.” Quote: “So let’s talk about this new CD, which I’m already at work recording in the Kitchen Studio. It’s called Dance in the Fire, and you can expect a lot of energy and beats that are going to want to make you move. You’ll also hear soulful love songs, chants that honor the seasons and our connections to Spirit, rousing rock anthems that you won’t be able to stop singing along with (so my Lovely Wife tells me), and more. But to get all of this out into the world, I need your help.” Happily, the Kickstarter has already reached and surpassed its modest goal of $2,500, and is now working on stretch goals. Quote: “If we reach 3500, I will be able to produce my next solo collection, tentatively called, Words of Mystery, and anyone who pledged forty or more will also get a copy of these bardic tales when it becomes available in the fall. So spread the word and lets bump this up. To be clear, if we hit 3500, everyone who has pledged forty dollars or more will get Dance in the Fire, a t-shirt, a tattoo,  Words of Mystery and I will throw in a copy of Poetry of Wonder for good measure. Thanks!!!!!” Congratulations to Arthur Hinds!

In Other Pagan Community News:

  • While I’m on the subject of Kickstarters, Pagan scholar and author Brendan Myers is looking to fund his fantasy series “Fellwater.” Quote: “It’s a series of novels about factions of ancient demigods and the everyday people caught in the conflict. Secret societies vie for control of the last corners of the Earth where the Mythic Age survives. It’s a world of alliances and betrayals, cults and politics, friendship and power. It’s what happens when you make a wish, and the horror of it coming true.” Sound interesting? Check out the campaign.
Character portraits from Brendan Myers' "Fellwater" series.

Character portraits from Brendan Myers’ “Fellwater” series.

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up. This week? It’s (almost) all about Halloween, and Pagans, and Witches, and how we celebrate (or don’t) during this time of year. So pull up some of that leftover candy, and let’s get started…

Ashley Bryner, senior Druid at CedarLight Grove. Photo: Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Ashley Bryner, senior Druid at CedarLight Grove. Photo: Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

  • Let’s start with the New York Times, who decided that this Halloween was going to be about Druids. Quote: “How many folks will spend the next few days and nights worshiping the old gods? The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey put the number of American Druids at 29,000. But then, many Druids connect with the practice of paganism, and the survey counted 340,000 souls in this category. Add another 342,000 wiccans (fellow travelers), and Samhain starts to look like a pretty big party. Of course, that number would swell if you were to include the ancestors who have passed on — and Druids do, especially in this liminal season.” Author Ellen Evert Hopman, and members of Ár nDraíocht Féin are quoted in the piece.
  • CNN decided to go with Witches for Halloween, and found one who isn’t fond of the secular holiday. Quote: “Trey Capnerhurst dons a pointy hat and doles out candy to children who darken the door of her cottage in Alberta. But she’s not celebrating Halloween. In fact, she kind of hates it. Capnerhurst says she’s a real, flesh-and-blood witch, and Halloween stereotypes of witches as broom-riding hags drive her a bit batty.” Capnerhurst goes on to claim that “traditional” Witches are hereditary, and Wiccans are converts. Which is a new one on me, since “trad” Witches generally means Witches who are members of an established initiatory line. Anyway, the article also interviews sociologist Helen Berger, who shares some basic data on the number of Pagans in America. Amusingly, the American Spectator got their underwear in a bunch over this article, so there’s that.
  • Some Wiccans have no real problem with Halloween, it should be noted.
  • While I’m making the rounds of the big-name publications, I can’t not mention the Newsweek article on how Witchcraft and occult practices are becoming, like, super-hip among young people these days. Quote: “We’re currently in the middle of an occult revival, says Jesse Bransford, a New York University art professor who co-organized an occult humanities conference earlier this month. He sees a connection between increasing interest in the occult and postrecession anxiety. Magic ‘has always been a technique of the disenfranchised,’ he says. ‘It’s something you do when the tools you have available don’t seem like they’re enough.’ These people aren’t just wearing black lipstick and watching witches hex each other on-screen; they’re also experimenting with, well, sorcery.” Let’s hope this augers an uptick in the quality of Pagan music.
  • Meanwhile, Paper Magazine interviews some event promoters in Bushwick, who are drawn to Witchcraft as an aesthetic oeuvre to operate within. Quote: “I think people just want to believe in something. But with Bushwick I think there is this underground movement, or a want to bring people together, that doesn’t have any formality to it. It’s just people who have their own rituals coming together. I think the social commentary aspect of it is there, but it’s super-subconscious. And I do think there’s a dark energy that people are now willing to talk about in a playful way. At least for us it’s playful. We’re definitely the entertainment side of Wiccan culture. Bushwiccans.”
  • For this Halloween, Reuters decided to focus on psychic scammers. Quote: “The law relating to such activities is not always definitive, Little said, noting that fortune-tellers and others who offer occult services often use a ‘for entertainment purposes only’ disclaimer to prevent legal problems. Even as people who sell occult services move online, some continue to run storefronts, offering psychic readings for a small fee and trying to talk customers into paying more to resolve problems.” However, I suspect that most party-goers looking for a quick tarot readings are fairly safe. Just don’t let anybody “cleanse” your wallet. Seriously.
shutterstock 1114023

Tarot cards.

  • Well played Yorkshire post, well played.
  • If you enjoy reading about Christians freaking out about Halloween, you’ve got your pick of the litter. Right Wing Watch, as always, picks a doozy. Quote: “Why am I concerned about the way Halloween, the media and our current culture encourage the celebration and trivialization of spiritism, occultism, Satanism, hedonism, witches, zombies and walking on the dark side with demons? Because the supernatural world is real, and no one is immune to it regardless of their education or worldview. God is real. Angels are real. Satan is real. Demons are real. Real gladiators and real Christians died in the Colosseum and circus even though many Roman leaders and citizens just considered their destruction an evening of entertainment.” See also: Southern Baptists talking about the “theological complications” of Halloween, and the Christian Post runs an editorial about the dangers of Wicca. Fun stuff, if you’re into that sort of thing. You know, feasting with Satan!
  • The Christian Science Monitor debunks the Salem Witch Trials, while scholar Owen Davies notes that the suspicion of witches has lived on far past those infamous trials. Quote: “Two centuries on from Salem and many Americans were still living in an essentially similar social, cultural, economic, and religious environment. The vicissitudes of life on the edge were all too real, and so was the fear of witchcraft as an explanation for misfortune and envy. Over the last three centuries, thousands of Americans, mostly women, have been abused for being suspected witches. Hundreds of court cases arose from accusations of witchcraft. Most startling of all, it is clear now that we know of more people murdered as witches in America after 1692 than were legally executed before that date.”
  • At the Washington Post, Starhawk contributes a piece on the holiday, noting that on Halloween “the past and future live.” Quote: “For us, Halloween is the time of year when we come together to honor our ancestors, to mourn our beloved dead and celebrate their lives.  In this autumn season, when the year itself appears to by dying.  As the leaves fall, and the harvest is gathered in, we celebrate the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain or Summer’s End.  The veil between the worlds is thin, we say, and those who have gone beyond can now return and visit us again, reminding us that death does not destroy our connection to those we love.” Elsewhere at WP, playwright Jeffrey Stanley extols the freaky fun of the supernatural.
  • UC Berkeley’s blog focuses on Americans and the occult, noting its ongoing popularity throughout this country’s history. Quote: “We have no polls, of course, to track occult beliefs before the mid-20th century, but, as I pointed out in a prior post, early Americans were deeply immersed in an enchanted world of spirits, incantations, and witches. Puritan ministers in colonial New England struggled to point out the contradiction between, on one side of salvation, pleading with God to shed His grace on an ill loved one and, on the doomed side, casting a spell to drive out an evil spirit that one believes caused the illness.”
  • The Los Angeles Times profiles Panpipes Magickal Marketplace, which is deemed “authentic in the way of a great London bookstore, yet with a glint of religion about it.” Quote: “[Co-owner Vicky] Adams is not a witch herself, she says, merely a pagan who says there are thousands of others like her across L.A., and she’s just here to help, no matter your chosen deity. ‘It’s hard,’ she says at the end of a busy day. ‘I had a customer who watched me work. When I finally got to him, he said, ‘I’m a psychologist and I get $400 an hour to do what you do.””

That’s it for now! There are a lot more Halloween-themed articles that feature Pagans, Witches, or occult practitioners, out there, but I feel this is a representative sample of what’s out there. Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

This year Pagan Spirit Gathering (PSG), a Midwest Pagan festival that’s been running for more than 30 years, broke attendance records, drawing over 1000 people to the week-long event. The West Coast Pagan convention PantheaCon, held each February in San Jose, California, has gotten so popular that they’ve introduced a new reservations system to prevent individuals from gaming the system. Pagan-friendly fantasy-oriented events like Faerieworlds are anticipating record-breaking numbers this Summer, and even brand-new Pagan events like Paganicon in Minnesota are growing at a healthy rate. It seems like Pagan festivals and conventions, at least in the United States, are doing great, but are the days of the large Pagan event that draws a national or even international audience numbered? That’s what Frater Barrabbas Tiresius at the Talking About Ritual Magick blog argues.

Solstice Fire at Pagan Spirit Gathering

Solstice Fire at Pagan Spirit Gathering

“There are many factors that are shaping the future in which we will live and they will probably have a profound impact on Pagans and Wiccans being able to assemble in large groups, unless of course, those groups are local and sustainable in the long term […] times are indeed changing and the need for such large gatherings may have achieved the upper limit in terms of both usefulness and sustainability. By usefulness I am saying that merely getting together for what would seem to be mostly a social gathering with sprinkling of some workshops, presentations, rituals, live music and the selling of obscure books and goods may not represent what is really needed or relevant for our growing population of practitioners and followers. By sustainability, I am thinking of the availability of resources to gather together in large regional or even international groups. Traveling by car or plane does impact the environment with pollutants and it also uses up precious resources, namely fossil fuels. These resources will probably become a lot more expensive in the decades ahead.”

In short, if I’m reading Frater Barrabbas’ argument correctly, the looming reality of peak oil, the effects of global warming, along with other factors, will eventually make the larger gatherings too expensive for anyone outside the immediate area to attend. That right now we are witnessing the upper limit of the Pagan festival phenomenon, one that might continue for several more years, but will eventually crumble. Is this prediction accurate? We are certainly seeing hotter summers each year, and scientists predict this will be the norm, with some areas seeing “the permanent emergence of unprecedented summer heat” in the next 20 years. Already, the record-breaking heatwaves being experienced in many parts of the United States are causing disruptions in all aspects of our transportation grid, a situation that could worsen as average summer temperatures increase. If long-range transportation becomes unreliable during the summer months, that would certainly keep many people close to home.

Airplane stuck on melted tarmac.

Airplane stuck on melted tarmac.

Environmental shifts changing the way we live our lives was recently discussed here at The Wild Hunt in a review of John Michael Greer’s new book “The Blood of the Earth.” Greer reminds us, and has been reminding us for years, that things will eventually change. That we cannot be forever insulated from the reality many parts of the world already face, resource shortages, and ever-inflating prices for the kind of travel we once took for granted. That we as Pagans, many of whom claim a special connection to the natural world, need to be ready to experience and live in this shift. This is echoed by Barrabbas, who advocates that Pagans start acting like those days are already here, and plan their events accordingly.

“As followers of earth-based spirituality, we should not only be aware of these facts, but actually embrace them and start planning and acting as if those times were already here.”

Barrabbas’ post is just the first in a series, one that I look forward to reading, especially his conclusions and recommendations, but I can take a few guesses of my own at where this line of thinking will go. Primarily, face-to-face Pagan events will become either regional or hyper-local affairs, and that national and international figures in the Pagan community will increasingly have to “attend” such events virtually. That “Pagan community” will increasingly lean on the powers of social networking to bind itself together. This reality is, in many respects, already here. Sociologist Helen A. Berger, in a revisitation of her Pagan Census project from the late 1990’s, noted that we are becoming increasingly solitary and eclectic, and that a majority of us already depend on the Internet as our main interaction with co-religionists and adherents of other Pagan faiths.

How often do we communicate with other Pagans?

How often do we communicate with other Pagans?

“Solitary practice and training outside of groups, most likely through books and the Internet, appears to be the future of the religion.”Helen A. Berger

Noted figures in our community, like T. Thorn Coyle, have already begun embracing a model that integrates virtual communication into their teaching. Producing a subscription web-series that students can use, including a private forum, giving access to Thorn and her teachings, without the need for her to travel constantly. The next step would seem to be virtual panels and virtual presentations at Pagan conventions and events that couldn’t afford to fly in a “big-name” Pagan. This would not only be “greener” but will ultimately be the only practical way to host such an event on a limited budget.

I think the age of the virtual and the hyper-local are upon us, and the quicker we accept that and learn to adapt, the better. Larger Pagan events can prepare now by investing in the infrastructure necessary to have a virtual component to all indoor events that used to welcome several noted teachers or religious leaders (projection screens, audio equipment, computers). We should set a goal so that in the next ten years, we will be ready for when these shifts in lifestyle become mandatory, rather than a lifestyle option. As Pagans, we can set an example for how to keep our communities close-knit and vibrant while dealing with the ramifications of our society’s choices. In a way, our heavy reliance on social networking, on virtual communication, to bind us together gives us a necessary head start. One we should exploit to make our events as environmentally sustainable as possible.

For more on this subject, stay tuned to the Talking About Ritual Magick blog, and I hope to revisit this topic after his series is completed, talking with some festival and convention organizers about what they think will be sustainable in the coming decades.

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’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.

Pagan scholar Helen Berger, co-author of “Voices from the Pagan Census: A National Survey of Witches and Neo-Pagans in the United States”, has announced that she and fellow researchers James R. Lewis and Henrik Bogdan are revisiting the Pagan Census project. The Pagan Census was first initiated nearly twenty years ago, and compiled data from thousands of modern Pagans to give a fascinating snapshot of our communities during Paganism’s meteoric rise in the 1990s. Now, in an age of blogs and instant communications, an update is underway to compare and contrast just how much we’ve changed.

“A number of scholars have noted that it would be helpful to have a follow-up of that survey to see if and how the community has changed or remained the same. The survey that follows uses many, although not all of the same questions that were in the original survey to provide that comparison. There are also new questions, for instance about the Internet, something that was of little interest 20 years ago but is now, and some from other studies, that again permit a comparison. This has resulted in the survey being somewhat long–we appreciate your taking the time to complete it.”

I urge all my readers who identify in any way with the modern Pagan/Heathen movement to participate in this census and spread the word to everyone you know. The more respondents the census has, the more accurate the data. You can find it, here. You can be sure that I will be paying attention to this renewed project as it goes forward, and will keep you appraised of any updates or results.

The Sioux City Journal is currently running coverage of Lawrence Harris’s murder trial. Harris is accused of first degree murder in the deaths of his two young step-daughters, which he said was the result of a “spell gone bad”. The trial will determine if these were premeditated killings, or if Harris was clinically insane during the murders.

Lawrence Douglas Harris was under pressure, unmedicated and trying to find a way to gain control of his life when he attempted to cast a spell in the basement of his house the day his stepdaughters were killed, his attorney told jurors in his trial today. In a packed courtroom with tight security, Assistant Public Defender Mike Williams delivered his opening statements, saying his client was insane that day. “Not just a little psychotic here and there. Not just a little disturbed, but insane,” Williams said.

The double-murder of two young children would be enough to make this case a media circus, add in the fact that Harris had a long-running fascination with the occult, Paganism, and Satanism, and you have all the ingredients for sheer pandemonium (both journalistically and in the court room). So it is a lucky thing that the expert witness on Wicca and Paganism called to the stands was Pagan scholar Helen A. Berger, author of “A Community of Witches: Contemporary Neo-Paganism and Witchcraft in the United States”, and co-author of “Voices from the Pagan Census: A National Survey of Witches and Neo-Pagans in the United States”.

Also testifying for the defense, Helen Berger, a sociology professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, explained something of Wicca, satanism and paganism and said Wicca is not about violence and killing. She said Wiccans believe that anything they do, good or bad, comes back to them threefold … During cross-examination of Berger, Assistant Woodbury County Attorney Mark Campbell produced an inverted pentagram that was found with Harris’ ritual items in the basement. “The Satanic Bible” refers to use of an inverted pentagram during rituals. Berger said the symbol is not part of Wiccan practices.

Berger was also one of the first experts to be interviewed by the Sioux City Journal in the initial wake of the killings. We can feel very lucky that Berger is the voice for Paganism in this trial, and not, say, one of the old “Satanic Panic” experts still hanging around. For full transcripts of the proceedings, go to the Sioux City Journal’s special page devoted to the trial (I really must commend the paper’s even-keeled and extensive coverage here). As for Harris, since Iowa doesn’t have the death penalty, he’s looking towards a lifetime of confinement, either in a cell or an institution. I’ll leave it to the jury to decide which one of these he deserves.

I don’t get to say this too often, but bravo to the Sioux City Journal for their even-keeled and well-sourced follow up story to the horrendous “witchcraft” killing of two young girls.

“The sisters were found dead in a second floor room of their Nebraska Street home. Fire crews discovered the bodies while responding to a fire call at the home Sunday afternoon. It was initially ruled suspicious … Their stepfather, Larry Harris, is now charged with two counts of first degree murder … Police say the girls were found strangled and stabbed in their home. Larry Harris told investigators at the scene that the girls were dead in their room, the victims of witchcraft gone badly.”

Faced with claims of “witchcraft” and the murder of two young girls, the Sioux City Journal, instead of going for sensationalism, went to actual academics who study modern Paganism and Religious Witchcraft for answers.

“Professor Helen A. Berger, author of three books on witches, said she doubted anyone claiming to have killed children while casting a spell is a true practitioner of witchcraft or Wicca, a nature-based religion often associated with witchcraft and spell-casting. It is unclear what belief system, if any, Harris was acting on when he allegedly killed the girls, Alysha and Kendra Suing … Lisa Stenmark, a professor in San Jose State University’s Comparative Religious Studies program, said most people proclaiming to be witches — especially those who practice Wicca — would not harm or sacrifice a human during a ritual. Stenmark said she believed further investigation would show Harris’ actions likely had nothing to do with witchcraft or Wicca.”

In addition, when the article looks for previous examples of ritualized killings, they don’t dig for something Pagan-related, they instead focus on a far more common religious paradigm.

“Kendra and Alysha’s killings may be out of line with what experts consider modern witchcraft and pagan practices, but they are not the first children to die during a failed ritual. In 2004 in Georgia, two people told authorities they had killed a 6-year-old girl during an exorcism gone wrong. Police said Christopher and Valerie Carey strangled, beat and stabbed the girl in an attempt to rid her of demons. Investigators found the girl, whose back had been broken, in a hotel room, covered with pages from a Bible.”

This is solid and balanced journalism by Journal staff reporter Molly Montag. Kudos to her for avoiding the tired trend of “balancing” the article with anti-Pagan Christian “experts”, or dipping into sensationalist exposition in order to sell more papers. If only all Pagan-related journalism was more like this.