story with the dramatic headline is two years old and based on research on religion in America on
even older data collected by the Pew Research Center in 2014 and
additional studies by conservative religious
think tanks, but it made the rounds again on social media as Halloween
rolled around again. Depending on your perspective the news was shocking, appalling, or an encouraging sign of a broadening of America spirituality.
course the Pew Center never made the claim
that there are now more witches than
extrapolated the claim because it made an eye catching headline and guaranteed
click bait. Then pundits and bloggers ran with the story giving it their own spin. The original research simply noted that Wicca, the largest new-pagan group had exploded
with claimed adherents. From
1990 to 2008, Trinity College in
Connecticut ran three large, detailed religion surveys that showed Wicca grew tremendously from an estimated
8,000 in 1990, to about 340,000 practitioners in 2008.
found eight years later that there were about 1.5 million people identifying as Wiccan, but that many,
if not most of these did not belong to any coven
or claimed to be sole
practitioners. Most of the rest
might best be described as spiritual
seekers attracted to the mythology,
connection to the earth and environment, and to a female-centric
religion but who do not seriously practice Wiccan rituals.
Pew study also noted a general decline
in both membership and identification with Christian churches both Protestant and Catholic even including Evangelical
who had showed sharp growth in the previous two decades. Mainline
Protestant denominations showed
the steepest declines.
through Pew’s count of membership by denomination, reporters noted that claimed
Wiccan adherents outnumbered the
enrolled membership of the Presbyterian
Church (USA), the largest Presbyterian denomination in America but does not
include the membership of more than a half dozen small Presbyterian bodies who cleave to the rigid
Calvinism of their Scottish roots the
many who profess to be Presbyterians out of family attachment but do not belong to any church and infrequently worship.
not only do the headlines mislead—taken all together, there are still more U.S.
Presbyterians than Wiccans—but compares
apples to oranges. Unlike Christian denominations, Wiccans an amorphous and de-centralized structure, keep few if any membership records beyond
individual covens, and have few buildings of their own. Self-defined
adherents can’t be usefully equated
with solid membership data. According to a 2016 Gallup Poll, 2% of Americans self-identify as Presbyterian—about
6.6 million or 5 times as many Wiccans
trace their origins to the Protestant
Reformation in the mid-16th Century
from the theology of John Calvin via Scotland’s John Knox and spread to some English dissenters. They
came to America with 18th Century Scottish, English, and especially Scotch
Irish immigrants. They became a major
force in the Middle Colonies and
were the original religion of the Scotch-Irish who led pioneer settlement throughout the trans-Allegany West and South.
Like their cousins, the Congregationalists of New England, they prized a highly educated
clergy who were loath to follow their frontier
settlers into primitive conditions. Most of the Scotch-Irish except for a landed elite drifted away to the
Methodists with their lay preachers
and saddle bag circuit riders or to
the Baptists whose congregations freely ordained their own
ministers with little formal training.
and after the American Revolution,
many Northern and urban Presbyterian ministers also became influenced by the Scottish Enlightenment which was also a
leading influence on many of this
country’s founders. That began a long, slow but steady shucking of much Calvinist doctrine. These
Presbyterians became influenced by the Social
Gospel movement. By the post-World War II era the largest Presbyterian
denominations were mostly liberal
and cultural progressives. Demographically
they were considered a faith of the educated
and elite right behind the Episcopalians and alongside the
Congregationalists who became the United
Church of Christ.
PC(USA) was established by the 1983 merger
of the Presbyterian Church in the United
States, whose churches were located in the Southern and Border States,
with the United Presbyterian Church in
the United States of America, whose congregations could be found in every
state. It has shed most vestiges of Calvinism except for its unique governance and polity.
Since then social issues
including the ordination of women and LGBTQ status with in the denomination, disinvestment in South
Africa to protest apartheid, and
harsh criticism of Israeli abuse of Palestinian rights has led to some member churches to leave the
denomination and individual to resign
membership or simply fade away. Undaunted,
the PC(USA) remains committed to social justice.
think of our friends from the Ridgefield-Crystal
Lake Presbyterian Church whose members
were long active in the local McHenry
County Peace movement, actively engage in hands-on support for the
poor and oppressed in Central America,
have a vigorous environmental ministry,
and are currently working with Tree of
Life Unitarian Universalist Congregation and Faith Leaders of McHenry
County on our Compassion for Campers
program for the homeless.
claims to deep roots in pre-Christian Celtic or Druid practice, Wicca is much
younger. It was created in its present
form by Gerald Gardner, an English civil servant and amateur anthropologist who died in 1964
who was influenced by Masonic ritual
and occult lore to hang an elaborate structure on the barely understood elements of an ancient culture.
America that was greatly elaborated on and popularized by The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of
the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess; a book by the poet and mystic Miriam Simos as Starhawk. The book was widely influential well beyond the still small and idiosyncratic world of
neo-paganism. It was avidly read by feminists, those interested in deep ecology, and women in small towns
and cities who had felt isolated and
Decades after she helped define Wicca in America Starhawk remains the most influential elder or crone of feminist neo-paganism.
was an early and influentially active member of the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans (CUUPS). Her influence contributed heavily to the
adoption of the Unitarian Universalist
Association’s Seventh Principle, “Respect for the Interdependent Web of All
Existence of Which We Are a Part” in 1983, a move led by the faith’s growing eco-feminist movement. That inclusion has in many ways profoundly
changed traditional Unitarian Universalism broadening its roots form radical
Christianity and modern Humanism,
influencing the way the faith acts in
the world, and being a major catalyst
for a revival of spirituality in the liberal faith.
the history of religion and spirituality in the late 20th Century America is written it is possible that the most influential person might not be some mega-church pastor with a perfect pompadour and dazzling white smile, a learned theologian with a break-out idea, a prelate or president of
some denomination, or the guru of
some eastern mysticism, but Starhawk
a nice Jewish girl from St. Paul, Minnesota with wild hair
and a penchant for colorful flowing
of Wicca’s adherents realize that the creation of Gardner and Starhawk is not a
literally accurate re-creation of an ancient religion. It doesn’t matter. The mythology surrounding any religion is equally questionable. What is important is how that mythology
usefully informs an understanding about the world, humanity, and morality. While some practicing Wiccans may believe
they are actually invoking real gods
and spirits in their rituals and incantations, the vast majority do not. They understand the power of metaphor.
Feminism and the environment are just two of the concerns that have led modern Wiccans to social justice activism.
Wiccans have generally been successful in separating
their brand of witchcraft from Satanism except among the most
conservative Christians. Many are now
attracted to a faith that proclaims a wholesome
connection to nature, the cycle of the seasons, and the divine feminine.
a trend that is apt to continue as more and more Americans describe themselves
as “spiritual but not religious.” But don’t worry, the Presbyterians will still