by Jason Mankey
A recent study found that Islam and Mormonism were the two fastest growing religions in the United States. The study, conducted by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, didn’t mention Paganism, most probably because Paganism is harder to measure. This particular study focused on organized bodies, and that particular emphasis was even expressed in the title of the study: “The Religious Congregations and Membership Study.”
Paganism is a subculture that largely falls between the cracks. It’s not a faith that can be measured in terms of congregations and buildings because Paganism generally lacks those things. It’s also a religious movement without a central source, in addition to having no Pagan Pope; there are very few groups with any sort of national presence. Over the last 30 years, attempts have been made to create larger associations, but those associations still only represent a fraction of Modern Paganism.
Most Pagan groups lack the institutional structure necessary to build a permanent worship site. There are several pieces of Pagan owned land in the United States, but those sites don’t operate like churches in the traditional sense. These sites don’t generally have their doors open seven days a week, and to use their facilities you usually have to pay something to help cover the owner’s costs. Most of those facilities are campgrounds as well, and often an hour or two off the beaten path. It’s nothing like visiting a Catholic Church in the middle of an urban area.
The lack of Pagan infrastructure is the direct result of how most Pagan groups operate. Pagan groups tend to be small, and many of them have a short shelf life. Pagan groups can generally be divided up into three different types:
1. The Coven — Covens are small groups, usually less than 20 people, and all the members tend to be quite close. Covens usually meet in living rooms or out of the way places. Covens tend to be selective about membership since the goal is to work closely with others in the group. Coven is a Wiccan term, so it’s not a term found universally within Paganism, but most Pagan faiths have small groups that act much like a coven. Many covens are also parts of larger “traditions,” whose teachings are generally passed down through initiation rites and kept secret. Even as part of a tradition covens still tend to operate independently.
2. Circles — Circles are bigger and more accessible opportunities to participate in Pagan ritual. Usually circles are open to anyone and meet in public places, like a park. Group size can vary from a dozen people to over a hundred. Since public circles like this only meet a limited number of times per year, they can’t sustain an institution like a traditional church or synagogue. In addition circles are generally made up of people in other groups and covens.
3. Councils/Social Groups — There are many organized Pagan bodies that sponsor festivals and other social events. These groups might only organize social opportunities without endorsing a particular strain of Pagan practice. Some of these larger groups offer some degree of legal protection and/or advice, but tend to act more like a trade group than the Vatican. One of the largest Druid groups in the United States, Ár nDraíocht Féin (or ADF for short) has a central structure, but allows individual groups (groves) to mostly do their own thing within ADF’s ritual structure.
While there are hundreds of Pagan groups and covens scattered throughout the United States, many of them are always in flux. I read once that the average life span of a Pagan group was 18 months! There are some success stories; covens that have been in existence for over 60 years, and groups that have survived since the 1970s. As Paganism continues to grow in numbers, the longevity of groups will probably increase.
Since Paganism lacks a central authority, anyone can start a Pagan group. This is a blessing and a curse. It’s a positive that one doesn’t have to be spend years in seminary school to experience the gods; it’s a negative that anyone can read a book and consider themselves an expert. Since Paganism is outside of the mainstream, it tends to attract people with “Type A” personalities, individuals with an independent streak. Strong personalities lead to personal clashes, which lead to groups splitting up and new circles being started.
Until there’s a Pagan Temple in every major city, Paganism will continue to exist off the grid for many statisticians and others who measure religion by organized institutions. One of Paganism’s strengths is that it is portable, that you can practice it in a living room or public park – however, such strengths also make it nearly impossible to quantify its growing presence in our society.