Of Pagans and Presbyterians

October 26, 2018

Earlier this month, a report by The Christian Post revealed approximately 0.4 percent of Americans now identify as Wiccan or pagan. 0.4 represents somewhere between 1 million to 1.5 million people in the United States. The point of interest for The Christian Post proves their comparison with the number of members in the PCUSA, a left-leaning Presbyterian  denomination. Their current membership rests at 1.4 million people. One need not possess a degree in math to see the juicy bit of information. Pagans and Wiccans possess the same numbers as the largest Presbyterian denomination in the country.


What do we make of such a story? Probably not what the author of this post from The Friendly Atheist said in advisement on the matter: 


      Stop treating the LGBTQ community like second-class citizens. Start supporting comprehensive 

      sex education in schools and affordable birth control if you truly want to see abortion rates go



I understand atheists would not know all the nuances and contours of American Christian denominational life, but the PCUSA predated American culture in its progressive march to endorsing LGBTQ ideals: it first tolerated transgender clergy in 1996 (via refusal to sever ties with the church the minister served and failure to rescind ordination of the same). In 2010, the PCUSA General Assembly approved ordination of openly LGBTQ clergy at the discretion of its congregations. Same-sex weddings gained approval in the denomination (2014) before Obergefell v. Hodges legalized same-sex marriage in all fifty states in 2015. If the decline of the PCUSA has its roots in liberal ideals, one could not say the stimulus was a lack of them. 


I find the story itself and its reporting terribly interesting. We can draw several things from it.


This tells us more about the PCUSA than it does Wicca and other forms of paganism


The headlines certainly have a sensationalism about them. When an author applies words like “astronomical growth” to the growth in self-professing pagans in the USA, one might think every third person she meets in the checkout line at the grocery store thinks of himself or herself as a witch. Not so. Remember, the number stands between 1 million and 1.5 million. That’s around the population of San Diego, CA with a distribution across the entire nation. True, the growth proves rapid. In 1990, only 8,000 people made such a claim about themselves, and the number jumped to 340,000 in 2008. So, we do have at least three times as many adherents as before which merits thought. 


However, the decline of the PCUSA as a denomination should take pride of place as Christians think on the matter. From 2012 to 2013, the denomination lost over 89,000 active members. Perhaps many would express surprise that, in a denomination which has ordained women since the nineteenth century, the majority of those members lost were women (49,516). The number of churches declined by 224. Finally, the number of child baptisms decreased by 1,933 from 2012 to 2013. 


The PCUSA, along with other mainline denominations, lacks numerical health. The efforts the denomination continues to make at liberalizing its theology and practice seem to have the opposite effect than intended. Rather than welcoming people into communion, it seems to drain them away.


Paganism is real


I do not currently know anyone who would identify himself or herself as a witch, pagan, or Wiccan. In the past, I could not truthfully say the same. Back in the days of knocking on doors to do neighborhood surveys for churches during domestic mission trips (why the churches served never did the door-knocking, I’ll never know), a friend of mine and I met a man who told us without embarrassment of his own paganism. I do not recall much of the conversation, but I can remember him emphasizing he didn’t burn cats, which seems oddly specific. Several classmates of mine in high school dabbled in Wicca. The Ásatrú religious group in Iceland began construction of a new temple last year. The construction halted for an unreported reason, but the religion continues to gain adherents in Iceland without the official building. I know one pastor who has cared for members in his church as they relate to one of their children’s friends whose parents practice a a pagan religion. 


One story I read spoke of various hashtags used by witches and pagans on social media as a sort of means legitimizing witchcraft as a growing movement. I have decided against linking the particular piece. After checking the hashtags and related items, they seem mainly to serve as a means of collecting angsty photos of women in fairly stereotypical witch garb. Things such as these obscure the reality of the matter. Professed paganism exists and continues to grow; it’s an unexpected religious trend we should expect to continue to grow. The growth of paganism surprises both Christians and those who seek to further secularize our culture. We should be watching.


Christ Alone


While many might find ourselves shaken by the revelation of the rise of paganism, we should remember this: the darkest, conscious rejecter of Christ for the worship of nature and spirits will hear the same thing as your most moral Jesus-ignoring neighbor on the Last Day: Depart from me; I do not know you. 


When I was younger, older Christians did not refer to people outside of Christ so much as the “lost” as the “deceived.” I find something helpful in that sort of Christian vocabulary. We must remember, when we drill down to the bottom of things, which lie our friends, family, and neighbors believe does not matter—the result, eternal separation from Christ our deliverer and  delight remains the same. The outward conformity to inherited biblical morality (which degrades by the day in the West) means zilch without a heart given over to Jesus. 


We march toward the Judgment. We do not know the exact contours of the path. Our spiritual ancestors waited for the day on which the accusation of atheism for rejecting the Greco-Roman pagan pantheon would come and they would find themselves publicly beaten, imprisoned, or made an entertaining spectacle in death. Today, those specific non-gods receive no homage, but perhaps the way of our Anglo-Saxon and Celtic forebears do. As the first Christians to march westward from the sunny Mediterranean into the cool dampness of Northern Europe bravely spoke of God Incarnate as a Jewish peasant and crucified on a Roman cross to all sorts of nature and spirit worshippers in their day, so we must do the same in ours.

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