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Witches outnumber Presbyterians?

Two women dressed up as witches take pictures in front of the bonfire during the traditional San Juan's (Saint John) night on... June 24, 2015 09:45pm EDT
Two women dressed up as witches take pictures in front of the bonfire during the traditional San Juan's (Saint John) night on... June 24, 2015 09:45pm EDT | REUTERS

Media reports over the last several months have trumpeted that witches in the U.S. now outnumber Presbyterians.

It’s great religious click-bait but the assertion, to the extent it’s based on anything, rests on a false comparison.

In 2014 Pew Research Center estimated that 0.4 percent of Americans, about 1 to 1.5 million people, identify as Wiccan or Pagan. This statistic, cited in all the media reports, is evidently the most recently available data, although it is four years old. But faddish stories can sometimes be ginned up based on old numbers.

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Media reports have compared this number of supposed Wiccans/Pagans with 1.4 million Presbyterians, hence the provocative headlines. Witches and other adherents of natural religion outnumber a major Christian tradition in America.

Pew’s Wiccan estimate includes all persons who identify with Wiccan type beliefs. The Presbyterian number is based on the enrolled membership of the Presbyterian Church (USA), which is the largest Presbyterian denomination in America.

This comparison does not involve equals. A more accurate assessment would compare enrolled members of covens with the enrolled members of all Presbyterian denominations.

Of course, there is no registry of covens or other pagan groups. Wiccans don’t tend to have institutions with formal membership. They are mostly individualistic and, although claiming ties to ancient pagan beliefs, are very American and modern in their pursuit of their own mostly self-created nature-based spirituality. “Wicca” as a term dates to the mid to late 20th century.

A more accurate comparison would liken total self-identified Wiccans with total self-identified Presbyterians, not just enrolled church members. According to a 2016 Gallup Poll, two percent of Americans self-identify as Presbyterian, which would equal about 6.6 million Americans, or 5 times as many Wiccans.

The total number of enrolled members in Presbyterians denominations would include not just the 1.4 million of the Presbyterian Church (USA). There are also the Presbyterian Church in America with 375,000, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church with 145,000, the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians with 121,000, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church with 71,000, the Korean Presbyterian Church in America with 55,000, and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church with 31,000. Counting other smaller denominations there are maybe 2.1 or 2.2 total Presbyterian church members in America.

Far more people typically identify with a church tradition, based on their past, family ties or occasional involvement, than are actively formal church members. But sometimes splashy headlines are based on false comparisons between self-identification of a non-Christian movement with formal members of a Christian denomination.

For example, sometimes an estimated number of persons who identify as at least culturally Muslim are compared to a Protestant denomination’s formal membership as evidence of surging Islam in America.

As denominationalism continues to recede, and more even active Christians identify less with traditional denominations, these comparisons will become likely even more common, even though they are apples and oranges.

This particular story of witches and Presbyterians apparently began with an October 4 Quartz article headlined: “The US Witch Population Has Seen an Astronomical Rise,” mostly based on the Pew study and an even older study from Trinity College in Connecticut in 2008.

Quartz did not reference Presbyterianism. But my friend Carmen Fowler LaBerge tweeted the article with this comment:

As mainline Protestantism continues its devolution, the U.S. witch population is rising astronomically. There may now be more Americans who identify as practicing witches, 1.5 mil, than there are members of mainline Presbyterianism (PCUSA) 1.4 mil.

An October 10 Christian Post article cited Carmen’s quote, accurately including the PCUSA reference. But this piece evidently sparked subsequent witch/Presbyterian comparisons in other media that omitted specific reference to PCUSA membership, instead making blanket witch/Presbyterian comparisons.

On December 17, The Daily Caller ran the headline: “Witches Now Outnumber Presbyterians In The US,” declaring: “Self-identified practitioners of witchcraft in the U.S. outnumber Presbyterian Christians, thanks in part to Millennials’ embrace of New Age spirituality.” But the story in the second paragraph did specify the comparison was between Wiccan self-identification versus PCUSA membership.

More vaguely, a November 18 Newsweek article, headlined “Number Of Witches Rises Dramatically Across U.S. As Millennials Reject Christianity,” claimed: “With 1.5 million potential practicing witches across the U.S., witchcraft has more followers than the 1.4 million mainline members of the Presbyterian church.”

Even more vaguely, Breitbart on December 22, just in time for Christmas, amplified the claim with headline: “Witchcraft Booming in America, ‘More Witches than Presbyterians.’” It read: “The number of self-declared witches in the United States now exceeds the total number of Presbyterians, the Telegraph declared Friday.”

Breitbart was referencing British newspaper The Telegraph , which on December 21, under the headline, “Witchcraft moves to the mainstream in America as Christianity declines – and has Trump in its sights,” declared:

That growth trend was confirmed by the Pew Research Center in 2014, whose surveys reported that more Americans identify as Wiccan, a form of modern paganism created in England, or pagan than as Presbyterian. At the time of the surveys, there were 1.4 million American Presbyterians and about 1.5 million Wiccans.

In fact, the Pew study did not compare Wiccans with Presbyterians. The Telegraph made no reference to the PCUSA, nor did Breitbart.

With now wide international coverage, the witches/Presbyterian story escalated. Even George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, a prominent television commentator on judicial issues who’s not typically focused on religion, blogged with the headline: “Report: Witches Now Outnumber Presbyterians in the United States.”

Turley’s news hook was President Trump’s complaints about the “witch hunt” in Washington. Other stories about the supposed surge in witchcraft noted witches had placed hexes on Trump and Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Witch talk is fun, and spuriously claiming witches now outnumber Presbyterians was too delicious to avoid, along with hyperbolic assertions about Christianity’s implosion and paganism’s surge.

Widely circulated on social media, the witches/Presbyterians headlines were cute and, if taken seriously, alarming. But their claims were false. Self-identified Presbyterians seemingly outnumber Wiccans by about five to one.

Whatever America’s challenges and problems, witches and Wiccans, who remain very few in number, are likely not chief among them. Much more numerous Christians in America likely cause far more trouble than witches.

Originally posted at Juicy Ecumenism.

Mark Tooley became president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) in 2009. He joined IRD in 1994 to found its United Methodist committee (UMAction). He is also editor of IRD's foreign policy and national security journal, Providence. Follow Mark on Twitter @markdtooley.

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