New Pagan survey takes a different approach

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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.”