British Paganism is Dying. Why?

A few years ago, I gave a talk to the OBOD Summer Gathering about the role of young people in Druidry. I began by pointing out that the average lifespan for an adult during the Iron Age was about 30 years – even if the sky-high rates of infant mortality were excluded. Today, we tend to think of elderhood as something reserved for those over 65; but to our ancestors, anyone over 30 would have been looked upon as an invaluable source of wisdom and experience. To accentuate the point, I invited the audience to stand up, and then asked all those over 35 to sit down again. If we were Iron Age druids, the majority of those seated, I explained, would be dead. Although the point I was making about the relativity of youth and eldership is an important one, this little experiment – getting anybody over 35 to sit down – revealed something else. Of a room full of 150 people, only about 9 were left standing. If this sample is taken to be indicative of the Order as a whole, that means only around 6% of OBOD’s members are aged between 16 and 35. By contrast, this age bracket covers some 26.4% of the UK’s general population.

This lack of young people at OBOD gatherings made manifest something that had been lingering in the back of my mind for some time; something that had previously only been whispered over campfires, on kitchen tables, late at night when the wine was flowing. Not only are few younger people coming to OBOD events, but some of my friends report that there seem to be fewer people of all ages taking an active role in organising events and rituals. While people are still coming to big public rituals at seasonal festivals, they are less and less inclined to volunteer to organise them, or to take on regular commitments of any kind. Moots are shrinking, it’s harder to fill up workshops, and getting enough volunteers to set up and run camps and gatherings is a struggle. For a long time, I suspected that this was confined to OBOD – Druidry, after all, has a powerful association with old white men with old white beards – but having spoken to friends of mine involved in other traditions, it appears to be more widespread, if not as extreme in other parts of the community. I’ve been told that the number of registered members of the Pagan Federation has gone down for the first time. At the Harvest Moon Conference in 2016, Melissa Harrington confessed that she felt that this decline in active participation was indicative of Paganism “going underground” again. Most of the Pagan Federation events I’ve been to recently have shown a similar demographic spread to OBOD ones.

All this is developing in the context of our experience of the most recent UK census in 2011. Ronald Hutton calculated in Triumph of the Moonpublished in the mid-ninetiesthat the number of initiated Pagans was around 17,000 – 20,000, with a larger number of “active engagers” of about 120,000; people who may revere Pagan gods, practice magic, and mark seasonal festivals, but are not initiated into any Pagan group. When the 2001 census recorded some 44,000 Pagans across Scotland, England, and Wales, this figure attracted considerable press attention, both positive and negative. Hutton speculated that if 44,000 people were sufficiently invested to identify themselves as Pagan on a censusdouble his figure in Triumphthe number of more loosely affiliated “active engagers” could have doubled too; creating a figure of 250,000 people.

In advance of the 2011 census, major Pagan organisations in Britain led the Pagan-dash campaign, encouraging people to identify themselves as Pagan on the census. However, the number who reported themselves as “Pagan” increased to only 56,620 peopleand depending upon how broadly one defines “Paganism,” the number of those identifying as a member of a Pagan or esoteric tradition increased to around 80,000 people. As Vivienne Crowley pointed out, this indicates that the meteoric growth of the 1990s had slowed. My concern is that the declining number of young participants in the Pagan community in Britain, and the general diminution of those taking an active role in the community as a whole, indicates that that growth has stalled. British Paganismas a subculture and as a movementis in trouble.

The clickbait-y title of the piecechosen to encourage you to read what I have to say (sorry)is doubtless an exaggeration. As such, I’ll need to make a couple of caveats. The problem I mention above is not some catastrophic dissolution of the social relations from which the Pagan Movement in Britain is forged; there is no imminent disaster, we’re not all in schism or at each other’s throats. The fact that this crisis is a slow crisis, I suggest, is what makes it so easy to ignore. But communities are not just vulnerable to feuds and disruption; time itself is an enemy. It is said that we are all dying, one day at a time—but communities have ways of warding off the parabolic curve toward the grave, by recruiting new members from new generations. If none of these ways are followed, however, then a community will necessarily disappear, subjected to the remorseless attrition of the passing of years. The death of the Pagan Movement is some way off; my aim here is not to pronounce its imminent demise, but rather to draw attention to a set of problems that, if unaddressed, will necessarily lead to the movement dying away.

I’d also stress that the scope of my observations above is necessarily quite limited. This situation applies solely to British Paganisms, and not to those of other countries. On a recent trip to Australia, for example, I witnessed a quite different realityin which a great many of people my own age are getting involved in and leading Pagan traditions. In European countries, I know, the demography is similarly diverse. Are there thriving covens and groves, recruiting many members under 30, out there in the UK somewhere, that I have yet to meet? Very possibly. If they do exist, I’d very much like to meet them; it’d be fascinating to learn how they’ve managed to buck the trend that I’ve observed in my own experience of the British Pagan Movement.

I also think it’s important to point out that the decline in British Paganism does not mean in the slightest that magical practice, animistic beliefs and ritual, British folkways, or the celebration of the wild and mythic heritage of these islands as a whole is under threat. Indeed, I would suggest to the contrary; that all these cultural practices are very much alive, and growing, amongst the younger generations as anywhereindeed, witchy stuff, hippy vibes, eco-activism, and nature mysticism are more on trend than ever. Which makes it all the more bizarre, to my mind, that existing British Orders, Traditions, and Camps are not riding the wave of the neo-folk, authenticity-seeking, sustainability-conscious zeitgeist. Hutton’s distinction between initiated Pagans and “active engagers” is very useful hereit is important to stress that becoming an initiate of a mystery school, and actively engaging in a broader cultural tradition of enchantment do not necessarily relate to one another. They are two rather different things.

What is in decline, then, is something quite specificthe Pagan Movement; a collection of organisations, publications, ceremonial genres, training courses. That collection is no longer feeding the appetite of the general public for the magical. That appetite has not gone away; indeed, it has potentially increasedso we must ask ourselves what has changed.

Dealing with some existing explanations

When I’ve raised this issue in the past, some of those I’ve spoken to tend to comment upon it in a number of ways. Firstly, they tend to argue that young people are just inherently less interested in spiritualitybeing more concerned with enjoying themselves, having children, or workingand that they will find Druidry when they become more spiritually-inclined as they get older. Secondly, the argument is made that there are probably many younger druids, but they just don’t come to the existing selection of events. Finally, some druids argue that most people are fundamentally ignorant and insensitive to the subtle forces and immanent power of wild places. Each of these commentaries serves to minimise the problem; the assumption being that the absence of younger people will resolve itself in time. With regard to the dip in the number of people prepared to take on organisational responsibilities, people tend to simply shake their heads, and mutter darkly about adverse economic conditions. I’ll deal with each of these responses in turn.

The suggestion that young people are necessarily less spiritual is one that doesn’t reflect my own experience, nor does it chime with the history of Paganism as a movement. I routinely meet people my own age with a deep and profound engagement with religious and spiritual practicebut they’re just normally involved other organisationssuch as Western Buddhist Orders, the Brahma Kumaris, or even liberal churchesover Pagan ones. As I’ve already pointed out, much of what Paganism is all about is very popular amongst young adults today. This reflects a long and passionate history of youthful involvement with magical and mystery traditions; the 1990s “Teen Witch” phenomenon demonstrated an enthusiastic appetite for enchantment amongst teenagers, and as Helen Berger and Doug Ezzy eloquently point out, the derisory views of this phenomenon by more experienced practitioners was largely ill-founded. As I pointed out at the beginning of this article, if you go far back, pretty much all the Druids and priests of pre-Christian times would have been in their 20s. And although many people will get more inclined to involve themselves in spiritual practice as they get older, the same could be said in the reverseit is a well known phenomenon for spiritual ardour to cool with age.

The more moderate claimthat young Pagans are out there, but they aren’t coming to events or undertaking coursesis more plausible. As I’ve said, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest a large population of “active engagers” in Pagan materialeven if they aren’t accessing that material through active participation in the community itself. But that begs a further question: why are British Pagan community leaders not organising events and courses that better cater to the majority of people? What might resources of this kind look like? The fact that the majority of those interested in “Pagan” themes in Britain aren’t being catered to by what’s already on offer within our community is not a reason for complacency; if anything, it should be the opposite. I would suggest that we’re simply doing as we’ve always done, even though it clearly isn’t working in the way that it once did.

The final claimthat most people simply don’t appreciate what the Pagan movement has to offeris, I think, the reason for this complacency about the narrow appeal of our movement in Britain. For much of the 20th century, Pagans have been viewed with thinly-veiled hostility by British society at large, with most of our valuesfrom respect for nature to equality for women, from sexual liberation to a valorisation of the imaginationbeing decidedly countercultural in nature. This had direct consequences; in custody battles, in dealings with the police, in employment and at home. This experiencepart of living memory for most Pagans todayhas reinforced the perception that the rest of society simply “doesn’t get” what we’re all about.

But the fact is that British society and its values have changed dramatically since the 1980s. Much of what once made Paganism radical is now widely accepted by those of all religions and none. It is no longer particularly progressive to believe in the central importance of the natural world, or in basic equality for all. Though these values are under attack from corporations and far-right populist movements, the very fact that the opposition to these values has crystallised at this moment demonstrates the broadening of their appeal. People would have no need of the gurning outrages of Nigel Farage and Katy Hopkins if everyone still took their regressive views as common sense, as they once did. While British Pagan organisations have concentrated on mainstreaming, it has escaped the notice of many of us that the mainstream is now increasingly flowing in our direction. We are winning the argument.

And yet, rather than harness this tectonic shift in the soul of Britain, some Pagans have remained pretty insular in their thinking. The recent memory of bigotry shown toward our community has become a shield for other, less edifying attitudes. Like members of most subcultures, it’s tempting for Pagans to look down on those outside of our small community, characterising the general public as mindless, uncritical “sheeple” or “muggles,” enslaved to societal expectations. We are all familiar with the extreme form this attitude can take; the British Pagan Community has its fair share of what an American friend of mine referred to as “Grand High Poobahs.” But I would suggest that we all need to be vigilant against this tendency within ourselvesmyself included. In the past few years, I have met so many people who shared identical values to those of contemporary British Pagans. Though lapsing into a bit of mild snobbery is a ubiquitous trait in British society, I suggest that it has led us initiated Pagans into underestimating the current reach and appeal of the things we care about most. As such, we’ve become vulnerable to a sort of Religious Hipsterismtreating our religion less as a vision of a better world, and more as a mode of personal distinction that lifts us upward in the unending churn of the class system.

To return to Hutton’s formulation, then, it appears the problem is not the decline of all cultural practices that can be connected to the Pagan revival. Rather it is a disjuncture between the orders, traditions, newsletters, groups, literatures, and organisations that make up the “Pagan Movement”and a broader audience of “active engagers” that is larger than ever. But how has this rift emerged? I suggest that, of the comments I’ve mentioned so far, the one that sets us on the path to understanding this process is the lastthose grim reflections upon economic adversity, and its impact on people’s ability to engage in the time-consuming task of organising and volunteering for community activities.

The Political Economy of Paganism

In one of my first essays on Gods and Radicals, I explored the political economy of contemporary Paganism. There I argued that Paganism is quite unlike more established religions, in that the prevailing economic structure is not a church, or a monastic order, or an ashrambut rather a fandom. It is a group of avid enthusiasts, who consume content produced by a smaller circle of creators, who distribute their content through an open marketwith that content being celebrated through events organised by enthusiast-volunteers. My aim in producing this description was to provide the most accurate picture of how goods, services, labour and authority circulate in our community. The point is not that individual British Pagan authors, workshop leaders, diviners, and shopkeepers are greedy capitalists. In fact, all the creators on the British scene that I have met are generous and altruistic, with spiritual rather than profit-motives. The point is that the system in which they all work is a market-oriented one. And as it lives by the market, I suggest, so our community is now dying by it.

Within the British Pagan Community, two kinds of organisation played a key role: the Independent Small Business and the Unincorporated Association. Mind Body Spirit Shops and Bookshops are all small businesses; institutions that rely upon commerce, but provide a hub for existing initiates, and, crucially, allow new seekers a means of finding their way into the community. Through the gateway represented by the MBS Shop, the seeker would find their way into a network of covens, orders, groves, moots, ceremonies, and camps. All of these are forms of Unincorporated Associations, run by volunteers, usually at costif any money changes hands at all. The key feature to both these types of organisationSmall Private Companies and Unincorporated Associationsis that they’re both very vulnerable to fluctuations in the wider market.

The fate of the MBS Bookshop makes this vulnerability plain. Like all small, independent shops, a great many pagan or MBS bookshops have been forced to close, afflicted by economic instability in the wake of the Great Recession, rising business rates, andmost importantlyout-competed by internet retailers. The Internet has now largely replaced the bookshop as the first place seekers go to find out about our traditions. Pagans were early-adopters of the Internet, and the web provided an invaluable means for Pagan groups to meet and work with one another. But the Internet itself has transformed drastically since the 1990s. Web design, search-engine optimisation, and e-marketing have become tremendously advanced, funded by vast amounts of corporate capital. In the crowded marketplace of online content, it’s easy for your brand to be drowned out unless you can successfully deploy a rich supply of fresh, original content, distributed adroitly through social mediamuch of which consumers expect for free. British Pagan organisations have been slow to adapt to this environment; and while being slightly dated and tatty adds to the charm of an independent bookshop, a website that is poorly designed or has late 90s coding won’t look any better for it. To those of us who have grown up with the internet, an old-fashioned website is downright off-putting.

A further problem from a commercial standpoint is the fact that Paganism’s “brand” has suffered in recent years. As John Halstead has pointed out, we’ve gone from being perceived as a threat, to being seen as a joke. Although efforts to mainstream the Pagan movement have brought undoubted benefits, it has nonetheless had the unintended side-effect of removing some of the edgy charisma that was once part of the movement’s appeal. This effect has been compounded by the fact the British Pagans who most assiduously court publicity are amongst the most eccentric, with the lowest production values. Those of us who are less inclined to dress up crushed velvet, or give ourselves grand titles exceeding our actual accomplishments have ended up avoiding the limelight entirely. Though understandable, this reaction has meant that the British public now have a mental image of Paganism that amounts to little more than bad cosplay at the Summer Solstice.

If we turn away from the shop front, towards the community meeting in the function room upstairs, we run into a different set of issuesbut ones that can nonetheless be traced back to market forces. The Pagan Community is reliant upon the voluntary labour of enthusiasts, as the events rarely collect enough cash to pay the going rate for the labour involved. During the 1990s, when many camps and moots were being set up, this was not a problembenefits and wages were generous enough to allow people copious spare time that they could devote towards voluntary activities. But after decades of cuts in state finances and stagnant wages, paired with a rising cost of living, people across the country are struggling to make ends meet, and are working longer hours. With their increasingly limited time off, they now need to focus upon domestic labour, spending time with their loved ones, and on recreationactivities that “recharge the batteries,” allowing them to continue working.

Voluntary labour and extra-curricular learning have both suffered, as people no longer have the time or energy to spare to engage in them. Unfortunately, these are precisely the two types of activity upon which the Pagan community was built in the mid-20th century. As the amount of spare time available has collapsed, so have the number of people prepared who can find the time to become initiated, learn the mysteries, and then enact them for others for free. The only exception are those who have already secured sufficient assets so that they no longer need to work for a living; that is, retired people.

In short, the same reason lies behind the aging of British Paganism, and the decline in the number of active initiates prepared to run events. The Pagan Movement was constructed, quite unintentionally, as a network of commercial relations, that in turn stimulated a thriving voluntary scene, all gathered around a common genre of writing and ritual. But as market conditions have changed in the past few decades, this delicate arrangement has been yanked out of alignment. The Movement has not remained competitive in the crowded marketplace of online content, and has not made the most of its distinctive brand. Given that people are more pressed for time and money than ever, fewer young, working people are attracted to it, and there are no longer enough volunteers available to run its events.

Beyond Commerce, beyond work: The way forward

Although I have taken pains to reveal the commercial underpinnings to British Paganism, this does not mean that I think this situation is an ideal, or even good state of affairs. There are a great many alternative ways of organising ourselves that would make our core activities much less vulnerable to shifts in the wider economy. Equally, in saying this, I do not mean to criticise anybody’s individual way of making a livingas I’ve said, I have not met anybody on the British scene who I would describe as a profiteer, exploiting their spirituality to collect a tidy sum. Instead, what I’ve experienced is lots of passionate, enthusiastic people, aspiring to earn a wage in a fulfilling way. But it is interesting that the social structure that developed organically around our Movement was in the first instance a capitalist one. Even our voluntary arrangements, as I have argued, have been directly affected by adverse market conditions. This just goes to show that the British Pagan Movement is not exempt from the prevailing capitalist logics that structure British society in general. And these same logics are now placing the very longevity of our community in question.

To lay out the issues before us plainly, there are two things with which the market once supplied the Pagan Movement in Britain. Namely, a means for “active engagers” to find out about the Movement and become initiates within it; a shop-front, in other wordsand sufficiently generous and un-taxing sources of income to allow for initiates to pursue the mysteries in their spare time. The market in Britain no-longer provides us with these things, and so our community is withering on the vine. Although there are, perhaps, more “active engagers” than ever, we are cut off from them. The question that now lies before us is this: How can we better connect with this large pool of active engagers, of all ages, and how can we better sustain the practice of the mysteries, now that people’s time and energy is so short?

I cannot provide a comprehensive programme of solutions here, though I will venture some suggestions in future articles. But there are some key observations I wish to make, by way of concluding remarks:

  • It is clear that our movement’s focus around long-term, expensive, extra-curricular pedagogy – that is, upon initiation pursued in one’s spare time, with one’s spare incomeis becoming harder to sustain. In these trying times, active engagers need healing and well-being as much as they need initiations. Now is the time for us to reflect more than ever upon our responsibilities as magicians, rather than our rights as religionists. We must care for the Earth and its peoples.
  • This does not mean we should abandon our drive to initiate more people into the mysteries; but it means we should re-think how and why we do this. If we are serious about broadening the reach of what we do, we need to find ways of making it accessible and feasible for people to learn about it.
  • This, if anything, shows us one thingBritish Paganism is being killed by capitalism. Although I have cast it in quite stark, commercial terms, at the heart of the Pagan community sits a utopian vision of free-association: a Bookchinite imagined village, in which individuals are free to interact with one another regarding matters of mutual interest, and to exchange goods and services in a similar manner. There are many ways in which this vision has been put into practice; particularly in the voluntaristic dimensions to the Pagan experience. I have lived and breathed this sort of lifestyle at Pagan camps I have attended. But it has become increasingly hard to sustain in the cut-throat landscape of post-recession Britain. If we’re serious about wanting to build a village-like community in contemporary Paganism here, we’ll need to destroy capitalism in order to do it.

Jonathan Woolley

1b&w copyJonathan is a social anthropologist and human ecologist, based at the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in the political economy of the British landscape, and in the relationship between spirituality, the environment, and climate change. A member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and an eco-animist, Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.

25 thoughts on “British Paganism is Dying. Why?

  1. There are a few things at play here I think. Being one of the people who got into all this in the earliest nineties I have seen it all evolve somewhat.

    The nineties were something of a heyday; we had a lot of young-people aimed TV shows with positive depictions of witches and witchcraft which had a MASSIVE influence and was part of the teen witch influx. Not all of them stayed within witchcraft or Wicca (in the latter, non-initiatory sense) but spread out into the other traditions. Many also fell away with time. You also have the internet coming along and offering up the chance to share and talk to other likeminded people. All of this was a big recruitment boon.

    Those TV shows have gone away and the way people interact on the internet has changed dramatically; fora are much more a thing of the past and the more bloggy style of social media rules supreme. There simply aren’t the big public pullers anymore to draw people in and so we don’t have the teen influx any more.

    BUT, all of that said, there is still a much slower intake of new people finding their way into the various paganisms, albeit at a slightly older age – 20s. The groups I am involved with have a steady flow of new initiates, with plenty who are younger, and this is going on all over Europe too. One of the differences, is as Melissa Harrington said, it is all being done ‘underground’. The trend towards Druidry came and went, along with the trend towards Shamanisms, Heathenry and Wicca. I think we are back in a cycle of witchcraft again, and one where it is more about being hidden and getting on with it as opposed to advertising yourself with as many yards of crushed velvet as a human can handle.
    The Wheel turns; the top will be bottom, and the bottom; top. fnar fnar

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  2. I clicked your bait, expecting to disagree – only to find you had articulated beautifully the problems that I struggled with as a pagan in my 20s. When I hit my 30s I finally committed to following through with training and initiation, but that was after years of feeling drained by the huge number of demands on my time, and the feeling that I should always be doing more, that I was never quite doing enough to be a proper Druid. One thing that comes with age (at least for me) is a certain amount of resilience and the ability to distinguish “could” from “should”. I can easily understand why young active engagers might be wary of taking on the baggage of an initiatory tradition, especially when it is culturally easier than ever to explore pagan-related ideas independently.


  3. What is not considered is that the emotional satisfaction from contact, however nebulous, with the “Ancients” is now best served, especially for the young, in the form of video games – check out the titles. And video games have now passed film/videos in terms of popular appeal. The presence of self-regarding marathon droners does not help either. Whatever. AMR (82.5)


  4. Another thing: it’s easy to find books and Tumblr type communities that are specific to what you are looking for, even if it’s rare. Such communities are likely to be too geographically widespread to meet physically. At most they will have some center, that most people experience virtually. By contrast physical moots have a location in space and a limited catchment area, and are going to either be very nonspecific and broad brush, or specifically something else other than what you are looking for. I have a feeling that people’s tolerance for “generic Wicca because it’s the best we can find around here” is lower when the alternatives are more available than they ever were.

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  5. The economy is a big deal. When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I had my driver’s training free as part of summer school and parents paying taxes. My state no longer does this and driver’s training fees as well as using a parents car is now the norm. I know tons of people that still don’t have a driver’s license at 25 because their parents had several children, are single parents and they need their own car and can’t let their kids learn on it. That makes access to work, further education of any kind limited to where you can walk or who you can beg rides from. So it’s transportation in most places if you aren’t in a city on top of the money, job, and time issues. Also the net has changed yes we have Facebook, Twitter, and blogging but the chat rooms where you could be Anonymous while trying to figure things out before you commited are gone. Yes, back then you could be anybody you wanted to be or you worried about the other person potentially being some axe murderer, just now a lot of people are cautious because it’s all out there and they know their family, friends, and neighbors, are watching their comments online. Teachers and employeers are watching too. The bookstores are dying out and have been for the last 17 years. Not just the Pagan, New Age shops but the big box stores and independent bookstores in general.

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  6. Young people aren’t being drawn to neopaganism, they aren’t interested in all the pageantry, they aren’t interested in limiting doctrines such as Wicca and Druidry, and they are too smart to get their heads around worshiping the sun and moon – thank you science. No, they are interested in real knowledge, self empowerment, and working their own magic without worshipping out dated deities. Witch-craft… emphasis on the craft, is what people are interested in, coupled with the wild woman movement, which has seen an uptick in the interest in traditional witchcraft, which focuses more on ones own abilities, than it does on pouncing around with naked old people. And that isn’t a slur on old people, that’s a slur on naked prancing, which looks like bad panto at best.

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  7. A few things:

    You may be underestimating the effect of burnout. It takes a lot of effort to lead, and too often leaders just give up because too few people want to put in enough time, effort (and yes money) into making a group successful.
    In America at least, too much drama seeps into Pagan groups. People drop out of the religion altogether, or go solitary. Paradoxically, most of the drama, in my experience, comes from the very young people we want to see in our religions. They are just not mature.
    I think an independent group that lasts more than 5 years is the exception, and the reason is usually members of the group start feuding, and everyone goes their separate ways. There are some exceptions such as CUUPS and the ADF, but at least in my area, this seems to be true. So our institutions, such as they are, are unstable. (Unfortunately, so are many of our leaders.)
    Paganism arose in a capitalist society, so using capitalism as a scapegoat is just that. Our problem is not capitalism, but our inability to use capitalism to our advantage. To be certain many times any capitalist effort fails because we focus on too narrow a market segment, or too narrow a product line, but starting up a small business is always high risk anyway. We also have the added burden that so many in our own ranks think our services should be free – and that is the value they assign to it.
    The kooks get all the face time on news feeds, because we have no recognized spokespeople to show our religions in a favorable light.

    There is also the issue of autonomy. Most of us joined Paganism for the freedom it gives us – and the sense of personal responsibility that comes with it. If we look back at other religions that were built on the concept of personal enlightenment such as the Gnostics, or the Taoists , we find that they never were really embraced by the masses and never really had the ability to build religious institutions. That is the internal flaw we have to deal with.


  8. I made a similar point here I think though one thing you have not factored in is the Internet and how it has encouraged large amounts of information to be gathered and understood superficially. They do not buy books but hoard PDFs which they have not paid for. The feeling i have from many is that they are “interested” but don’t want to do much practical work. I dont think capitalism killed paganism, it was just outright laziness


  9. I think the age is not an accurate marker. I mean that I do believe joining a spiritual movement such as Druidism is a matured decision and young people have other priorities such as earning money to survive and settle in life. That doesn’t mean they aren’t Pagans. I considered myself as an atheist from the age of 10 until 40, until I could put a name on my beliefs. Because youth is rebel and rejects all sorts of labeling quasi systematically.


  10. I know why its dying. Because some Pagans are allowing Christians into their fold. Some Pagans dont want to tell Christian Witches and Christian Pagans that they are not welcome. Some people are too tolerant, and the rest of them just put up with it instead of put their foot down to it.


  11. I was a bit of a late-comer to paganism. I’d been drawn to visionary traditions through a combination of my own experiences and writers such as Blake, Rimbaud, Nietzsche, since my late teens but only figured out that my experiences were connected with the native British spirit world when I discovered paganism when I turned 30. When I started getting involved with UCLan Pagan Society, The Druid Network, and Dun Brython, all these groups were on the wane. UCLan Pagan Society has since died. The Druid Network is running… slowly… as far as I know although I’m not as involved as I was. And Dun Brython is held together by 3 members!

    In my experience there are a lot of young people out there looking for alternative earth-centred spiritualities, but they seem very eclectic, and not to be seeking traditional groups, learning courses, orders etc. Unfortunately I’d agree with Halstead that we do seem to have gone from being a threat to a joke…

    On the upside the Oak and Feather Grove, who I am a member of, has always had a consistent amount of members (however we’d all now be on your dead side!). Another group I’m a member of that is doing really well is a shamanic drumming circle run by Way of the Buzzard They’ve been going for around 5 years now and have expanded into healing, drum making workshops, retreats, one-to-ones etc. This supports your claim that people are seeking/needing healing rather than more demanding initiatory and religious paths.

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  12. I’m speaking as a Dutch pagan. I do think things are different here in the Netherlands.
    Honestly, I think most young people are being solitary and/or experiment in smaller groups that are not on the radar of the older, more established communities, circles, etc. Also, you might want to check out Tumblr, Instagram, etc. Paganism and occultism are very popular there. Maybe stretch that to internet/social media in general, I’m a member of a very active Dutch group of pagans (mostly heathens) with over 1500 members, many of whom I suspect are under 40 years old. And then there are festivals such as Castlefest in the Netherlands, which is openly pagan and has an annual international attendance of over 30.000 people in 4 days – most of them young people.
    So I really don’t think it’s declining. Is it changing? Definitely. If that means that older groups will disappear, well, time will tell. It would be a shame, but I guess if you don’t keep up with what the young folks are interested in and how they communicate, this is a logical consequence. Then again, you could argue that the youngsters should listen to their elders, but how well has that ever worked out :p

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  13. Wow, thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. As someone in her early forties who have flitted with paganism for a long time and only recently actually committed to the OBOD course, the situation and experience you describe resonates strongly with me. Like many of my youthful time, I found mysticism in a pagan bookstore and hovered about it and others for many years. I’ve mourned their passing and before they passed, I mourned the lack of actual books being sold in them.

    I’m keen on the question of how to offer welcoming, useful, healing work in communities that is inclusive and inexpensive for those who wish for connection too but don’t or can’t take on the type of recent commitment I’ve made. Full moon meditations that are open to the public at a park on a regular basis? Some other kind of gathering place? I see how the capitalist impulse of buying books or pretty mystically stuff fueled those days.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. I wouldn’t be at ALL surprised if Ronald Hutton’s polemical works and research on the subject wasn’t directly to blame because, if you deprive one of their roots, the culture subsequently dies out! I, for one, am under the impression that he has unresolved issues towards his mother who raised him Pagan, and perhaps because he was raised in a British colony in India (and never really felt quite “British” since he’s an utter Anglo-phile), or perhaps because he was publicly embarrassed by the late mendacious scholar Norman Cohn during a debate over paganism during the medieval era. Likely, it’s a combination of the three. With each book Hutton pens, whenever any Pagan or scholars presents evidence showing that Paganism survived Christianity’s attempted extirpation he (Hutton) merely pushes the goal post ever further into the distance and out of reach by essentially contriving reasons for why that data mustn’t be considered, even though it would have been taken much more seriously by a far more reasonable scholar. Of course, others have made a good point that Prof. Hutton essentially painted himself into corner very early on in his career; so, now he must maintain it. But, then again, most Pagans are unaware that Prof. Hutton’s overriding agenda is not an objective and unbiased analysis of history, but a particular personal thesis in which he wants to examine how pagan elements became filtered out back out of Christianity, despite his admission (which modern Pagans are intentionally ignoring, for the most part!) that when writing “Triumph of the Moon” he intentionally ignored any research and evidence he came upon tracing Wicca back to remote antiquity.


  15. Greater Paganism has become so watered down and weak over the last couple decades it’s hilarious. A lot of this has to do with the rise of the internet and the death of the subculture. “Paganism” is not very strong and is more and more lacking in substance, while compiling hashtags and basic-witch online shops, that sell the same Azure Greenish garbage. If it weren’t for Ixaxaar’s noble work, brilliant authors like Ekortu or Lawless and inspiring groups like the Wolves, I doubt a lot of us would have been drawn so deeply, so heartfully into it and remained.


  16. I know anecdote isn’t data, but at Druid Camp here in the UK last year, I saw a wide range of ages represented, true a lot of people were probably in their 40s-50s but there were plenty younger than me (30), including students and young parents with small kids, actively volunteering in helping out with the cafe, cleanup and organisation for the event.

    With the more structured “Orders” like OBOD, I’m not surprised that younger people are not as interested in taking a formal structured correspondence course (that is quite expensive if you’re on a low salary/student budget).

    In an era where so much is online and/or open-source and knowledge exchange is increasingly seen as horizontal not vertical, a “graded” (hierarchical) course, on paper, via the post, that you’re not allowed to freely share with non-members, seems an oddity at best.

    A lot of Pagan groups also seem pretty insular, and not the most welcoming to new seekers. It isn’t easy to become an “active engager” when you don’t feel wanted, or aren’t given support. And a lot of Pagan groups on social media seem to have the same five conversations over and over again (eg who is/is not a real Pagan), and don’t seem to be acting on social and environmental issues in a way that would engage people across generations.

    But, do we want more Pagans (increased numbers) or do we want Pagan ideas to be a broader part of social discourse and be accepted by non-Pagans as well?

    In a time when religious membership is on the decline across all faiths in the UK, do we want to be another alternative religion or do we want to provide an alternative to religion?


  17. I suspect the phenomenon of fewer young people taking an active role in joining organisations, volunteering and organising events is reflective of of society as a whole rather than anything to do with paganism in particular. I see it with conservation organisations, for example. A particularly graphic case in point is an organisation I’m a long-standing member of – ‘The Mountain Bothies Association’ – which maintains simple shelters in remote locations, mainly in the Scottish Highlands – A set of photographs of a big work party in the 1970’s shows masses of young people – the organiser was aged 26! Nowadays, most organisers are in their 50’s or 60’s and the active membership is aging every year. I don’t know the reason or the answer but I think it’s a universal issue and not specifically a pagan one.

    Liked by 2 people

  18. Personally, began identifying as a pagan around the time I turned 21 (2011), and didn’t join any kind of group (ADF) until a year or two ago. When I first started considering myself pagan, I was simply a citizen of a very small town with no real access to local communities, which made things very difficult. When I look online to see what other people were doing, there were just so many options that it was overwhelming. I wanted to consider myself a Celtic Reconstructionist for a long while, but only ever saw bickering and no real, healthy community building being done.

    Personally, as a younger person, I think a lot of the problem is that there aren’t many groups available where it’s easy to be a lay member, of sorts. We have busy lives, and a lot of the time we would just like to be able to engage in rituals without needing to do a tremendous amount of homework, meet people who are genuinely interested in building things together rather than fracturing off at the first moment of disagreement, and have some kind of secular community building as well (like movie-nights or bar-meets). In the current climate, it’s simply hard to find a “pagan” community that feels like a genuine “community”. They tend to feel more like special interest groups, which, I feel, a lot of younger people simply aren’t interested in.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. My own experience of the long-term trends in paganism since I first became involved in it in the 1970’s (I would definitely have been sitting down in that meeting!) is that it moved from being a cultural fringe activity to becoming one of several possible life-style options for young people seeking to define their identity, and in doing so ceased to be something that, for most of them, demanded any particular commitment either to the ethos they subscribed or to any institutions that promoted it. That seems to be where we have got to. But the more recent restrictions on time and economic support identified in the essay have certainly also had an affect and the analysis provided is a useful tool in understanding these.

    Those subscribing to particular traditions or approaches , such as polytheists, do need to be more committed, but these seem to be very much in the minority. Can such a core of committed individuals provide a range of services for the more vaguely committed majority? And what should they ask in return? Questions are easy. Answers not so!

    Liked by 2 people

  20. Some very interesting points here, though I remain uncertain of the emphasis given in the original article about the economic factors at play. Perhaps paganism as a discrete movement, has simply done it’s job (as the article suggests) in changing culture? Traditional pagan groups of various stripes may well be in decline but internet mediated, rhizomatic affinity groups are plentiful, and there is also the massive resurgence of the psychedelic movement in contemporary Britain. That’s where the young people from what I’ve observed.

    Some related thoughts about the relationships between groups, leaders, movements and culture here

    Thanks for your article Jonathan.


  21. As an American Pagan, publically self-identifying from the age of three, foundress of my own Adyton, and Iseum in association with FOI, I spent my formative years studying Mythology, History, Archaeology, and getting a hard understanding of what Paganism really once was. I’ve never been Wiccan, nor into ‘mysteries’ per se. Just learning, honouring various Deities, taking personal responsibility, and trying to help others when called upon. Statistics in the US say that 40% or more of Millennials list themselves as belonging to ‘NONE’ when asked what their religion is. There are plenty of folks out there to interest, but what is the message? Indeed, Paganism is so splintered because of our very freethinking, it is hard to get folks to come together, but what is alternative? To die out, go back into tiny little hidey holes? Or to be very public, engage in Inter and IntraFaith movements, network and form large groups, temple complexes, and foundations to serve our communities. Each time there is a large press conference with Interfaith representatives on hand to deal with a larger Community Issue, there should be a Pagan representative up there. Perhaps on a rolling basis so that every group in a community is represented. We need to take ourselves seriously as religious and faith based groups. Learn from the mistakes others have made and try to better ourselves and the religious experience. Often, in the past, I have brought up these concepts, but folks my age [I’m fiftysomething] were dubious about ‘herding cats’. Well, if you are not out there with the Tuna and the Catnip, the Kitties will not come. We need to actively advertise, meet, and hold large multi-group events. However, as you say, volunteerism is down. Yet, if the organization is Public, when you are applying for a job, they want to know your volunteer status. If we create legal non-profit religious groups, make them known, people can list them on resumes. At least in the US, supposedly, one cannot be discriminated against because of religion. I know there are professionals and artists out there who consider themselves Pagan, time to come out of the Broom Closet, and serve your Communities by identifying yourself openly, and participating in Community Clinics and Fundraisers. Two things have always pushed this sort of serving a specific Community. The good feeling you get, and the cachet for having your name listed on something that matters. We need to create a broad based REALITY of Paganism, and as much as I love the UU’s, we need our own places. When a film or show comes out with derogatory views of our religions, we need to push back, in the pocket-book where it matters. Luckily, I have seen from my personal experience, in the US there are plenty of young people of diverse origins coming to Pagan events. Perhaps as other comments here have said, we need to cater to ‘laypersons’ of Paganism. However, if lay or general membership becomes a point of simply signing up, coming to rituals and events, feeling the part of a group with similar values, and contributing time and/or funds — instead of time consuming initiation and mystery-participation, then perhaps membership will increase. Folks who want to continue on to undergo initiation and mystery-participation can, as a secondary function. It is almost as if we are asking people to be clergy, before they are members, in some traditions. We also need to look long and hard at our various traditions, and see which ones lead to a ‘cultic’ or controlling mind-set. A religious calling is between a person and the Deity whom calls, not the group and that person. The group and the greater community should augment and guide that experience, not dictate or control it. Perhaps in the UK it is even more difficult. Your great Pagan Centers are tourist attractions, and your availability to use them is limited. Perhaps I am catering to the masses, but everytime I see Arthur Pendragon, I just want to tidy up his hair and beard and put him in a Saville Row suit before he holds a press conference. Even if I have to drug him to get it done. Sad to say, appearance does matter. I love to dress up in full regalia, when doing ritual that calls for it, but I’ll be in a suit, or a sharp frock, for a press conference. I feel the same way about certain Academics, too. Thank You for the well written and compelling article.


  22. I would love to talk to you further – I am a British person living in America who is on a path to understand deeply my own culture (I grew up in a fundamental christian home, so I’ve gotta go back and learn!) and bring that understanding to the people’s here. I’m also attending a language school for the native language here in Spokane, WA, and the concerns that you write about here are actually laid out as stages of language endangerment – you might find that both fascinating and instructional in methods outlined to help preserve language/culture.
    It’s become quite clear to me recently that being part of a bigger organization (whether formal or not) is instrumental in really diving deep with this stuff and having any kind of momentum with it. I have yet to explore a heritage path, but I life may yet call me in that direction. Something to explore, certainly!


  23. I am a British pagan living in South Cheshire, and since officially “coming out” as pagan in 2011 (yes, I put it in the census), I have found the path quite lonely and insular. Most of my interaction with fellow pagans is online in forums such as this blog, and my friends and family members do not identify as pagan (with the exception of my sister and brother-in-law who are away on a journey of self discovery), Being a stay at home mother with young children, my social life is practically non-existent for now. While I would love to join a local community for pagans, or indeed set one up myself, it simply is not viable for economic, social and practical reasons. Perhaps I will find time when I am older? Who knows. For now I must devote my time to teaching my children what I feel about paganism, and try to navigate the balance between traditional and modern day values. Thank you for a very insightful and thought provoking article.


  24. A complex problem that many of the other respondents have linked to a decline in membership of churches, scouts, Freemasons, Rotary and other religious and / or voluntary bodies as well as “market forces”. All true. Might I add in an epistemological toad into the cauldron? Ronald Hutton’s work was mentioned in the above article; the critique of the historical and truth claims of Wicca articulated in the “Triumph of the Moon” put paid to any claim of an age old tradition of paganism surviving through the Christian era, perpetuated through the early modern period (the classical witchcraft of the witch trials) finally manifesting in a hypothetical New Forest Coven to which Gerald Gardner had access. Indeed, the development of Wicca was shown to be heavily influenced by his contact with Aleister Crowley and his system of Thelema. To this day there are some OTO folk who call Wicca “Thelema lite”. The Thelemite influence can be shown to extend to Druidry (particularly of the OBOD variety, through Ross Nichol’s contact with Gerald Gardner. In a world of fake news and “alternative facts”, the seeker is left crying out for authenticity. The major traditions of paganism have made truth claims about their history that have been shown to be questionable at best. Could it be that the savy young seekers of today are turning away from these traditions to find something more authentically grounded in history and their own lived experiences thus turning away from the truth claims expostulated by chief priests, high priestesses, chosen chiefs, Imperators and grand high druids? Perhaps they distrust the hierarchical models that these organisations are built upon; structures that have been shown to be open to abuse by those possessing power within them? Is it a co-incidence that that decline in the popularity of physical meetings is mirrored by the rising popularity of online forums like BALG and that these forums are, for the most part, democratic and horizontal in nature rather than reflecting the vertical power structures of hierarchy? Authenticity, democracy, individuality, freedom, respect and an aversion to dogmatism seem to be the key words that articulate the spiritual quest of the seekers of the Millennium. Does the occult community in the UK and the traditions that constitute it reflect these values?


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