In October and November, there was this slew of articles coming across my Google Alerts feed about how there were more Wiccans that Presbyterians in the United States and will someone please think of the children. Now, those types of articles aren’t uncommon at Samhain; and because of that, I was totally going to ignore it as the shoddy clickbaity journalism that’s so popular at that time of year. Except it kept going past Samhain. Except it got picked up by the Daily Stormer. Except that as a scientist, a Pagan, and someone who spent a lot of Wednesdays in a Presbyterian after school program something wasn’t right. So I went digging around and found something that bothers me on a lot of levels.
This all started with a Quartz article in October saying there were more Wiccans in the United States than there were Presbyterians based on the Pew Religious Landscape Study. The Quartz article went on to say that 0.4% of the US population is Wiccan and that this is more than the numbers of Presbyterians, which they claimed has only 1.4 million members. They also included the phrases “actual witches” and “witch aesthetic” in their article, and almost every single subsequent article used those exact same phrase. Almost.Every.Single.One. That grated on my nerves plenty when I read the Christian Post, CNSNews, Newsweek, and the Daily Stormer. Since the publication numbers were racking up and showing up in deliberately violent and bigoted “news” sources, I decided to go back to the Pew Religious Landscape Study.
Before I get into it though, I want to make one thing very clear: numbers are a language of their own, and they actually mean things. You have to read them to understand them. You can’t just go cherry picking things to make a story. The number tell their story, and people should try and tell that rather than taking two halves of different stories to try and tell a sensationalized one.
The Religious Landscape study is based on phone interviews with people from 50 states and these individuals self-identify their religion. I’m going to keep the Presbyterian/Wiccan comparison; even though we’ll see even that definition is a problem. There are three groups we’ll look at evangelical Presbyterians, mainline Presbyterians, and New Age Religions. The New Age Religions breaks down into 3 sub-categories: Pagan or Wiccan, Other, and Native American Religions. You best believe I have issues with this organization. First off, Native American Religions needs to be its own discrete category; it doesn’t belong in with the New Age Religions. Second (and I can hear the exasperated sigh from one of my covenmates already, I love you but I’m going to beat this horse again) Pagan and Wiccan needs to be separated into their own categories because they aren’t the same thing at all, and this become important because they don’t have the frameworks at all. Not all Pagans practice witchcraft, and most of them don’t follow the Threefold law. If they can sort evangelical from mainline Presbyterians, they could have sorted Pagan from Wiccan.
That aside, the findings the Pew study presents are that the US population is 0.4% New Age Religions, 0.8% Evangelical Presbyterian, and 1.4% mainline Presbyterian. According to the United States Census Bureau, the US population is around 329.2 million people. If we do the math, that makes 1.3 million people who self-identify with New Age religions, 2.6 million who self-identify as evangelical Presbyterian, and 3.9 million who self-identify as mainline Presbyterian. Rest easy Christians, even if some people lied about their faith to the Pew researchers, you sill outnumber us. Even based on the Trinity studies from the early 2000s and the Pagan census, our growth is enough to outpace you. Yet.
So where did the 1.4 million people in the articles come from? Well, that number comes from the Presbyterian Church (USA) Wikipedia page and it’s only the active members. That number doesn’t include attendees who aren’t baptized, who are baptized by not confirmed, or just plain inactive members. That number also doesn’t include any of the members from the other Presbyterian churches like the Presbyterian Church in America.
This all makes me baseline pissy because I found all the information for the past 3 paragraphs in the time it took me to boil 2 eggs and make ramen. The Quartz writers have no excuse. Especially as there are other Christian flavors that are legitimately fewer than the New Age Religions category, such as Evangelical Anglicans, the Church of the Nazarene, Disciples of Christ, or any of the Orthodox Churches in the United States. This worries me because this kind of journalistic sloppiness is dangerous in this era, particularly when it’s picked up by such bastions of “integrity” as the Daily Stormer and conservative news sites like CNSNews. The Daily Stormer article fetishized the killing of women and the idea of the Burning Times.
Right around the same time this barrel of shoddy math and “witch aesthetics” came rolling down my feed, another two articles came up as well. The first was from the Religion Freedom in the World 2018 Report, which concludes “Aggressive ultra-nationalism – be it by hard-line governments or violent extremist groups – means many minority faith groups feel like aliens in their own country. They are easy targets in a new era of ignorance and intolerance”. This includes the violence against Rohingya Muslims, Nigerian Christians, Pakistani Ahmadis, and Iranian Baha’is. If we learned anything from the 2016 election, it should be that America is not exceptional, and it can (and has and will again) happen here.
The second was an article by Peg Aloi at The Establishment. Aloi points out that we have the ingredients for another Satanic Panic: young women, especially women of color such as the Hoodwitch, expressing independence; an attraction to non-Christian theologies and goddess-based thealogies; an abundance of occult stories in popular media, social media, and fashion houses; and a right-wing government. Bake for 25 minutes in a strained America and choke on it.
The fact that the story about Presbyterians and Wiccans made it into the Daily Stormer and CNSNews is deeply concerning. It may have happened a century ago in Trump adjusted terms, but the Pizzagate conspiracy was propagated by the Daily Stormer, they had live updates on their homepage. The would-be bomber from Florida read the Daily Stormer in his Trump van. The Daily Stormer publishes stories that deliberately inflame white evangelical men to stochastic terrorism. We don’t know who exactly they will hurt, but they will become dangerous. Even the white evangelical men who aren’t terrorists will be inspired to act out towards everyone else, and we’ll all pay that consequence.
We know this administration and its supporters act against women who stand up to it. Dr. Blasey Ford still can’t go home. Witches have been casting curses on the Trump crime syndicate for 2 years, and placing curses on Brett “I like beer” Kavanaugh. I suspect those witches who came forward about their curses have seen threats.
Pagans, Wiccans, and other Magickal practitioners need to be careful right now. Take care of yourself. Take care of your community. Take care of those who can’t take care of themselves. Speak for those who can’t. Be ready for the storm that’s coming.