Yesterday the BBC News Magazine posted a look at “spiritual, but not religious” people, cobbling together various studies and perspectives to try and understand this rather nebulous (yet growing) demographic. Interestingly, the lump modern Pagans in as part of the larger “spiritual” trend noting that “the spiritually aligned range from pagans to devotees of healing crystals, among many other sub-groups.”
Mike Stygal, is a secondary school teacher who practises paganism in his private life. He believes in a divine force in nature. “I believe everything is connected, I feel very in touch with nature and the changing seasons. Awe is a very good word for how I feel. It’s a sense of deep respect for nature. I can communicate with the deity.”
They also point to a quote from pop superstar Pink where she talks about her spiritual-but-not-religious makeup.
Pink on the BBC, October, 2012
“I love Native American spirituality and paganism, and I’ve studied Buddhism. I think organised religion is one of the top problems of the world actually, so no, I’d say I steer clear of religion and go straight towards spirituality.”
Increasingly, I think more and more people are finding Paganism not as discrete religions, but as a part of an open-sourced kit to build an individualized belief system or practice. They aren’t Wiccans, or Druids, or Asatru, they are practicing “Paganism” as a syncretic and eclectic system in its own right, people like Shirley McMichael a community engagement worker with the Policing Board in Belfast.
“The widow described herself as a pagan rather than a witch — although she does have a small ceremonial broomstick, a wand and casts spells. “Wicca (witchcraft) is more structured than our Pagan Voice group but we have quite a lot in common” she said. For Mrs McMichael, paganism — the worship of natural forces often personified as a god and goddess — is a way of being in tune with the environment.”
I think McMichael’s quote there is important because it highlights that she sees Wicca as a religious system that she chooses to work outside, though finds some affinity with. Likewise, turning back to the BBC News Magazine article, we find a woman reviving “ancient traditions” but with no real interest in labeling herself as a Pagan.
Bridget McKenzie, a cultural learning consultant, does daily walking meditations. “It’s about making time to contemplate the awesomeness of life on earth, the extraordinary luck this planet has in sustaining life.” She is not a pagan but for the summer solstice organises a Garlic Man Parade in south east London to reconnect with ancient traditions. “We all sense changes in the light as the seasons change. It’s important to mark the occasion.”
When the census data for England and Wales was released, I noted that as impressive as Paganism’s growth was, they may have been many more of “us” hidden in other categories.
Bringing to just over 80,000 (or so) Pagans. That number doesn’t count how many Pagans there might be lurking within the category of “Mixed Religon” (23,566), “Own Belief System” (1,949), or “Spiritual” (13,832). Other figures of note in the “Other Religion” category include Vodoun at 208, Traditional African Religion at 588 (both numbers that I think are too low), and New Age at 698 adherents.
The spiritual category might have included the Garlic Man Parade organizer mentioned above, the one who wants to reconnect with ancient traditions, and “mixed religion” would most certainly have encompassed a pop star who loves Native American spirituality, Paganism, and Buddhism. In short, Pagans are indeed much larger that some give us credit for, but our numbers will always be diffused through several categories because Paganism doesn’t demand brand loyalty or exclusive rights to your soul.
People are rejecting “religion” in ever growing numbers, and a growing number of individuals are defining themselves as “spiritual but not religion” even if they claim a religious affiliation. This decline simply speeds the decline further, as it becomes easier and more attractive to jettison religious labels.
Pagans dance in “nonreligious” Estonia. Photo: BBC.
“The idea is pretty simple,” said Richard Wiener of the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, and the University of Arizona.”It posits that social groups that have more members are going to be more attractive to join, and it posits that social groups have a social status or utility. [...] In a large number of modern secular democracies, there’s been a trend that folk are identifying themselves as non-affiliated with religion; in the Netherlands the number was 40%, and the highest we saw was in the Czech Republic, where the number was 60%.” The team then applied their nonlinear dynamics model, adjusting parameters for the relative social and utilitarian merits of membership of the “non-religious” category. They found, in a study published online, that those parameters were similar across all the countries studied, suggesting that similar behaviour drives the mathematics in all of them. And in all the countries, the indications were that religion was headed toward extinction.
What happens is that you start to encounter cultures where “nones” dominate, and where spirituality is often shaped by the landscape, and by the people living in it. This can be very Pagan as in the Pacific Northwest, where the authors of “Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia,” note residents are “eclectically, informally, often deeply ‘spiritual.’” Specifically, New Age and nature-oriented spirituality loom large among “nones” here.
“According to the just-published “Cascadia: the Elusive Utopia.” … a lot of these “nones” in the Pacific Northwest are actually very spiritual, walking a path of their own making, but not into organized religions and churches. Sociology professor Mark Shibley of Southern Oregon University wrote the lead essay called “The Promise and Limits of Secular Spirituality in Cascadia.” “This region is different. The people here are not as connected to religious institutions,” he says. The alternative spirituality here shows itself in two main ways, Shibley notes: “nature spirituality,” such as you see in the secular environmental movement, and the more well-known New Age spirituality, where the gaze is shifted inward.”
While some Pagans seem to scorn this growing contingent of eclectic, syncretic, label-free, spiritual people, I think it is this growing phenomenon that will deliver vital cultural shifts for those of us who are explicitly members of a Pagan religion. The rise of the unaffiliated in the world weakens the power of the religions that seek to create a homogenous “united” religious identity under their moral guidance. Call them wishy-washy, or unable to commit, or whatever invective you choose, but the “spiritual” people are the buffer that allows for the continued growth of Paganism around the world. Pink’s love of Paganism helps create a future where even more people can learn to love us.