4028 The State of Paganism Today

Speakers: Margot Adler

Prepared for UUA.org by: Chris Sealy, Reporter, Margy Levine Young, Editor

Margot Adler, NPR reporter and well-known Unitarian Universalist pagan, has just spent several months updating her 1979 book on paganism, Drawing Down the Moon. In this workshop, the State of Paganism Today, she talked about the changes in the movement she discovered during her research.

Some changes are easier to track down than others, such as the number of Americans who identify themselves as pagans. Conservative scholars, Adler reports, estimate 200,000 to 300,000 pagans, but other estimates run as high as 750,000. And why should anyone care? Since it's been a marginalized religious movement, Adler points out, larger numbers may add to its respectability. In fact, on the website Adherents.com, paganism is listed as the 19th largest religion in the world.

Adler credits the Internet with helping the pagan movement grow. In 2002, for example, there were more than 5,000 pagan websites, and there are many more today. On the Internet, people can learn about paganism and then seek out groups of people, particularly covens, to explore their interests more deeply. Adler, who became interested in paganism, and in particular, Wicca, during the sixties, remembers that in those days paganism was a coven-based movement. You had to join a coven to find out about paganism. No neighborhood coven? No connection.

Adler says her research showed a huge explosion in druid and Norse groups, and she noticed they have more fire than Wicca or goddess spirituality.

An even larger change Adler identifies is paganism becoming larger and more like traditional institutionalized religion. Leadership has changed, for example. It used to be, she says, that anyone who joined a coven, for example, was made a priest or a priestess. Now she says, there are more traditional religious leaders, and many are trained through large organizations such as Earth Spirit. Other pagan leaders are going to seminary, from Starr King to Harvard Divinity School.

Is there a downside to paganism growing so quickly? The movement was long based on personal connections, on community, on touching. Adler says now, through the Internet, there are many solitary pagans who have never experienced a great teacher or had deep, intimate conversations with other pagans.

As festivals have grown, they are no longer single communities. Adler laments this loss of cohesion in community. "There's so much music, so many CD's, that we're too big to have shared experiences," Adler says. "There are no longer 15 chants that everyone knows—there are five hundred!"

She's also a bit saddened, she says, that being a little more respectable probably means paganism is not as edgy as it once was.

"How do we retain our core, our fire, our passion, and our rebelliousness that was what brought a lot of us into this movement?" Adler asks. "I came because I wanted a religion without dogma that was open and ecstatic and had fire and passion but still had intellectual integrity. I want to make sure keep our fire and passion, and that's a real battle."