“What do Pagans do?” An Interview with Dr. Gwendolyn Reece

Cara Schulz —  February 12, 2015 — 29 Comments

WASHINGTON D.C. – While Pagans and scholars often grapple with what Pagans, Witches, and Heathens believe, Dr. Gwendolyn Reece, an Associate University Librarian and Director of Research, Teaching, and Learning for American University, is looking into what we do. Are we far more alike, under this fractious umbrella, than previously thought? The answer turns about to be a resounding yes.

Dr. Gwendolyn Reece [courtesy photo]

Dr. Gwendolyn Reece [courtesy photo]

Dr. Reece undertook a survey of United States adult residents who self-identify as Pagan, Witch, or Heathen. She then used the results to complete one article, which was published in the latest issue of The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies. This article is titled Prevalence and Importance of Contemporary Pagan Practices. A second article, Impediments to Practice in Contemporary Paganism, is currently in the works.

The survey for the study was posted online from January 2012 to May of that same year. All respondents had to certify that they were at least 18 years of age, and were able to choose one or more than one category to self-identify. For example, a person may identify as a witch, a Wiccan, and a Buddhist. It also asked other questions, such as the year they began their current religious path and if they consider themselves a beginner or more advanced. In the end, 3318 people completed the survey

As for what the respondents do, most every person taking the survey had these practices in common: we engage in individual rituals (96%); we celebrate the seasonal rituals (95%); and we meditate (94%).

The Wild Hunt talked with Reece about the survey, the published article, and the follow-up article that she’s currently working on.

The Wild Hunt:  Why did you undertake this study? What were you looking to find out?
Gwendolyn Reece: Most mainstream religious thinking in the United States focuses its conception of religion on belief and doctrine. However, this emphasis seems to me to be an approach that is more suited to Abrahamic traditions than other religions, and I am concerned that if belief is the primary standard for determining religious rights, then adherents of those religions for which doctrine does not hold the central place are at risk of having their freedom to exercise their religion curtailed.

There is no clear doctrine in contemporary Paganism, just as there wasn’t in classical Paganism in ancient Greece, for example, but the practice of religion is crucial. I wanted to know, on a large scale, what it is that people are doing as part of their religious practice as Pagans and I wanted to know what kinds of obstacles they encounter in pursuing their practice.

I have multiple reasons for wanting to understand these two topics. First, I don’t think we really know what activities people are engaged in to make up their overall practice and how these activities relate to each other. Secondly, I don’t think we know how important the various practices are to those who perform them. The answers to both of these questions are essential if we are going to defend our rights to practice. And finally, as a Witch and a Pagan myself, I want us all to be strategic in how we spend our scarce and valued resources, including both money and time. I want us to focus our efforts on addressing obstacles that are significantly inhibiting our collective ability to practice. We have not had adequate data to inform strategy and I am hopeful that this survey will be useful as people consider projects and initiatives. Certainly, there is much more data that needs to be collected to enrich the picture, but I hope to make a worthy contribution.

TWH:  What was the most surprising or intriguing bit of information to come out of the study?
GR:  There are categories of practice that are so prevalent that almost everyone is engaged in them, although the forms and the meanings constructed may be highly variable. There are also categories of practice appearing to be specialties that are not as common but those who practice them rank them as highly important, and those specialties are independent of tradition. This gives a different potential way of viewing Paganism as communities of practice and, frankly, of organizing support structures. So, for example, structures for sharing expertise and support amongst those who do curse-breaking might be beneficial but would not be tied to a particular tradition. Communities of practice, such as those in medicine and education, for example, focus on the work, the common enterprise, and come together to further the work.  It might give us an additional and complementary way of interrelating and organizing.

TWH:  In “Prevalence and Importance of Contemporary Pagan Practices” you take look at the practices in which modern Pagans, witches, and Heathens engage. You note that there are some practices so common that it is difficult to find Pagans who don’t perform them. Does this mean Pagans could be more easily defined by what they do rather than what they believe?
GR:  Given the lack of doctrine, it would be easier to define them that way, however it would still be incomplete without some additional information, for example, that they take inspiration from pre-Christian traditions. However, I certainly think that ways of defining Pagans, Witches and Heathens without addressing practices are also grossly incorrect. Definitions are inherently challenging, especially when there are no institutional structures that can determine membership. This is why my sample is made up of anyone who self-identifies with the title “Pagan/Witch/Heathen.” If they think of themselves in that way then as far as I am concerned, they qualify.

TWH:  It seems Pagans have much in common with other religions, when it comes to religion. In what significant ways are Pagans different in their practices than the Big Three of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism?
GR: That is not something that can be answered from the data in my survey, but there are excellent qualitative studies that can address those issues. I will point out that the two most ubiquitous practices are both ritually oriented, including individual ritual. I think the ritual element may be more heavily emphasized than in some other religions.

TWH:  Performing magic was high on the list of practices, although it didn’t break the top 5 in practices. Was there a difference between different types of Pagans regarding magic? In other words, is magic more important to Witches and less important to Heathens?  And, because there are more witches taking the survey, did that raise the percent of those who practice magic?
GR: The differences were not statistically significant. I, actually, did not necessarily expect that performing magick would be as high as it is, but expectations are often colored by the experiences of the perceiver. When I became a Pagan in the 1980s, the Witches I knew were all hardcore occultists. It seemed to me as though after the increasing in popularity that occurred in the 1990’s that magick was declining in importance within Paganism. However, in this sample, it is evident that magick continues to be an important aspect to most Pagans in their practice.

TWH:  Over 65% said they attend festivals. Does this surprise you? Do you think the number is high? Why?
GR:  Because Pagans are a hidden population and Paganism is not institutionally based, there is no way to generate a sample frame from which you can draw a probability sample. This survey was conducted using a type of snowball sampling, in which people forwarded it to people they knew, shared it on Facebook, and it was covered in a number of blogs, so the sample is drawn from people who are, in some way, plugged into the greater community, so this may be an instance of sample bias. There are no strong relationships with any of the other characteristics in the sample that would lead to the conclusion that this is inflated. However, realistically, if the American Religious Identification Survey estimate for Pagans and Wiccans is accurate, it is clear that the ticket-take doesn’t add up. I have no way of knowing for certain if the problem is my data or the methodology used to generate the estimate for the number of Pagans in the country.

TWH:  The numbers for volunteering, social justice or activism were also very high. And yet there aren’t many Pagan organizations where people can volunteer or get involved in such activism. Does this look like a need that is going unmet for modern Pagans, a place for volunteering and activism within Paganism?
GR: It is pretty clear that if people are self-reporting accurately, most of them who are doing volunteer work, activism, and social justice work as a part of their practice are conducting these activities outside of Paganism, but understanding their work as an expression of their religion. I know I, for example, support a number of environmental organizations as a part of my religious practice. Given our small numbers, it is not clear whether Pagans could agree upon a limited enough range of topics and approaches to build viable Pagan charities and activist organizations. As I will discuss in my next article, lack of opportunities for meaningful volunteer work was identified as a barrier for a substantial number of Pagans. Again, whether or not specifically Pagan charities would meet this need would require further study.

TWH:  In one section of the second article Impediments to Practice in Contemporary Paganism,”  you cover the obstacles experienced by Pagans as a result of the dominant culture in the US. What was one result that was out of the ordinary or something people may not consider?
GR: I was surprised by both the relative importance and number of people who identified that the dominant culture’s educational system was in conflict with their beliefs and practices.

TWH:  What about obstacles for Pagans within Paganism?
GR:  At least among my sample, there are clearly not enough appropriate and accessible groups to meet the needs of the current Pagan population. This is indicated by how many people identified the lack of a group to join as a barrier, the importance that they gave to this as an obstacle and, especially, the percentage of solitaries who indicate that this is a significant hindrance to their practice. Most Pagan groups operate on a home church model, which means they are never going to get particularly large and someone looking for a group often requires an invitation. There are many challenges with this model, and it’s clear that in terms of sheer numbers, there are Pagans who want to belong to groups that cannot find an appropriate and accessible one.

TWH:  What else will you be covering in the next article?
GR:  The other thing I’m currently analyzing and am concerned about is the long-term viability of the volunteer leader/clergy model that is currently the norm within Paganism. There are a host of serious challenges related to the fact that leaders and clergy, with only a small handful of exceptions, must rely on income from another source.

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Reece’s new article is titled “Impediments to Practice in Contemporary Paganism” and it is uses the same data set. She plans to submit it to The Pomegranate by the end of March, where it will be reviewed for publication.

Cara Schulz

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Cara Schulz is a journalist and author living in Minnesota with her husband and cat. She has previously written for PAGAN+politics, PNC-Minnesota, and Patheos. Her work has appeared in several books by Bibliotheca Alexandrina and she's the author of Martinis & Marshmallows: A Field Guide to Luxury Tent Camping and (Almost) Foolproof Mead Making. She loves red wine, camping, and has no tattoos.