Top Ten Pagan Stories of 2008 (Part One)

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As we reach the close of 2008, it is time to stop for a moment and take stock of the previous year. When you look at (and for) news stories regarding modern Paganism (and related topics) every day of the year, you can sometimes lose focus on the larger picture. So it can be a helpful thing to look at the broad strokes, the bigger themes, the events and developments that will have lasting impact on the modern Pagan movement. What follows are my picks for the top ten stories from this past year involving or affecting modern Pagans.

10. Parsing Pagan Numbers: 2008 was a very good year for folks who enjoy sifting through surveys and demographical data about Pagans. We saw some signs that Pagans might affect the political thinking of those around them, that liberals may be more likely to dabble in the paranormal, that Britain is shifting into a post-Christian reality faster than we imagined, and that Pagans overwhelmingly supported Barack Obama for President. However, the big story concerning statistical data and modern Pagans comes from the groundbreaking Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, which gave us some new insights into just how many Pagans there might be in America.

“Finally, we have confirmation that modern Paganism is continuing to grow. The study found that 0.4 percent of Americans adhere to a “New Age” religion, broken down into “Pagan”, “Wiccan”, and “Other”. These figures don’t include those who described themselves as “eclectic”, “spiritual but not religious”, “other liberal faith groups”, or members of CUUPs who identified themselves primarily as Unitarian Universalists. Working then with the idea then that (at least) 0.4 percent of Americans are modern Pagans (according to the study), that means there are at least 1.2 million Pagans of one variety or another in America.”

The Pew survey’s large sample size (35,000 respondents) gives our movement some firm reasons to believe we are indeed steadily growing (though not as fast as some would think). It seems like the explosive growth patterns we saw around the world in the 1990s are past, and a healthy, maintainable, expansion has replaced it (look for further confirmation of this hypothesis when the UK and Australia take their next censuses in 2011).

09. Pagans in Prison: The issue of the rights of Pagan prisoners continues to be a big story. Two major stories were the Washington Department of Corrections altering its stance regarding a prisoner’s adherence to multiple faiths (which allowed for the existence of “Christo-Pagans” and other religious meldings), and the historic testimony of Pagan chaplain Patrick McCollum before the US Commission on Civil Rights.

Wiccan Chaplain Patrick McCollum

“Over more than a decade, I’ve had the opportunity to interact nationally with both administrators and inmates on religious accommodation issues. While practices differ from state to state, I found discrimination against minority faiths everywhere.”

McCollum described discrimination against American Pagan inmates as “endemic”, and called for a complete overhaul of the way in which prison chaplains and staff are hired, and the establishment of a independent grievance process which would include experts in non-traditional faiths. As Pagan populations around the world grow, so too will the number of Pagan inmates, the fight for equal and fair treatment is an essential struggle that will no doubt continue for several years.

08. The Ups and Downs of Christian-Pagan Relations: This past year saw two books from Christian publishers that claimed to forward dialogue and engagement with the Pagan community, but only one that actually seemed to back up those claims (that would be “Beyond the Burning Times”). While many Pagans are quick to point out that not all Christians are Pagan-hating Jack Chick-reading caricatures, we found that there is still a lot of skepticism and cynicism inherent in the process of building better relations. No doubt this skepticism and reluctance to reach out stems from the ongoing stream of alarmist propaganda, straw man arguments, and a long-standing resistance among some Christian organizations to allow us equal access to the rights and privileges enjoyed by the dominant monotheisms. But small progress is still progress, yes?

07. Animal Sacrifice and Santeria Rights: I have long argued that what happens to our religious “cousins” in the African diasporic religions (Santeria, Vodou, Candomble, etc) ultimately affects the rights and freedoms of modern Pagans. We ignore their legal struggles – whether due to ignorance, indifference, or abhorrence – at our own peril. 2008 saw the fight over the legal right for these faiths to carry out their rituals in peace, specifically animal sacrifice, intensify dramatically. Relations between practitioners of Santeria and local police forces are getting tense, and the legal case of Texan Santeria priest Jose Merced, who was prevented from carrying out private rituals after neighbors called the police.

“Santeria priest Jose Merced filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against the city of Euless in December 2006 after officials told him he couldn’t sacrifice goats at his home for a ceremony initiating a new priest. Followers of the African-Caribbean religion consider animal sacrifice as essential to Santeria as Communion is to Catholics. Euless says the killing of goats for whatever reason would violate its city-wide slaughtering ban. Last year, the city proposed a settlement that permitted the killing of chickens – which is also involved in the ceremony and allowed under the city ordinance. Mr. Merced rejected the offer, saying that Santeria would cease to exist without the sacrifice of goats as well.”

Though Merced lost that case, it is currently being appealed. The problems being faced by Santeria and other related faiths (legal and cultural) is only intensified by ill-informed police and reporters who see dark magical rites whenever a dead animal surfaces in a street or graveyard. In fact, to some, all these diasporic religions are pretty much the same, and have little issue with casually mixing them up (which allows for utterly preposterous stories to be taken seriously). You can bet that 2009 will only see more coverage of these religions as they continue through their own version of the “Satanic Panic” years that Pagans endured.

06. Pagans and Litigation: This past year saw no shortage of the Pagan community in the courtrooms. Accusations of discrimination are no longer being tolerantly endured, instead we have witnessed more litigation over the rights/rites of Pagans (and other related matters) this past year than ever before. You had a Wiccan who successfully fought a ban on fortune-telling, a Reclaiming Witch who is fighting an unjust firing, a controversial custody case, the Supreme Court pondering the rights of a New Age syncretic religion, a religious displays case that involved Wiccans which fizzled out, a fight over religious graffiti, a bizarre “Satanic-Panic” criminal case involving Pagans in North Carolina, and a variety of cases involving public prayer. All that is only the tip of the iceberg, and you can bet 2009 will see even more courtroom struggles involving the Pagan community.

Tomorrow I will post the top five Pagan stories for 2008. In the meantime, I invite you to check out the top religion stories from some different perspectives. Time magazine’s top ten religion stories, the 2008 Top Religion Stories as selected by Religion Newswriters, The Revealer’s Best Religion Writing of 2008, Christianity Today’s top stories of 2008, and the Ten Worst Religion Stories of 2008 from Beliefnet’s Progressive Revival blog.