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The Social Structure of Paganism in America

Aidan A. Kelly
As J. Gordon Melton has long stressed, the Western Occult Tradition, which I prefer to call the Western Magickal
Tradition, is, by any obecti!e standards, a religious "o!e"ent in its own right, e!en though it lacks characteristics
that Western people associate with religion, especially large, for"al #churches# that e$ist for generations or
centuries. %urther, "any of the assu"ptions that Western people tend to ha!e about religion si"ply do not apply to
"agickal religions, whose beha!ior therefore appears to be parado$ical. The &agan Mo!e"ent is a subset of the
WMT, as are the 'ew Age Mo!e"ent and se!eral s"aller "o!e"ents. The ter" ("agickal religions,) as I use it, is
broader than the ter" WMT, since it co!ers "agickal offshoots of churches and religions that do not generally
e"phasi*e "agick.
+y #"agick# I "ean atte"pts to change reality by non,physical "eans. +eyond that, I a" not going to
define or defend the ter" ("agick,) or e$plain why I think a dichoto"y between ("agick) and (religion) is
untenable. All the churches that "ake up the &agan Mo!e"ent e"phasi*e the practice of "agick.
In trying to esti"ate the si*e of the &agan Mo!e"ent, until about -../ I typed infor"ation fro" &agan
periodicals into a database0 they were not easy to find. At that ti"e I could locate al"ost 1222 acti!e &agan groups.
Assu"ing that such groups ha!e an a!erage acti!e "e"bership of about -2, and that about ten ti"es as "any people
co"e to such a group3s open e!ents, that would gi!e an order,of,"agnitude esti"ate of se!eral hundred thousand
for national participation in this "o!e"ent. +ut this esti"ate is still too low4 "any groups, especially Wiccan
co!ens, do not publicly announce their e$istence. If there were an e5ual nu"ber of unannounced groups, then the
national esti"ate would ha!e to be about half a "illion.
It is fi!e years later. 'ow a search on Alta6ista on the phrase (Wiccan co!en) 7the word (witch) turns up
"o!ies, no!els, etc.8 turns up 19,222 websites. 'ow the "ethodological proble" is not that data are hard to find,
but that there is too "uch infor"ation to cope with. Analy*ing sa"ples of these search results to eli"inate
duplicates, lists of e!ents, etc., shows that about -2 to 12 percent of these websites ha!e been put up by practicing
co!ens. :earches on such phrases as (&agan Gro!es,) (;ruid Gro!es,) and so on, are clu"sier, but also turn up
e5ui!alent nu"bers of websites. &erhaps not as "any co!ens are staying in the closet4 the Web allows public
outreach and pri!acy si"ultaneously. The esti"ate for national participation in the &agan Mo!e"ent now "ust be
at least half a "illion, but a "illion is "ore likely, and it "ay be "ore. A recent sur!ey by the <o!enant of the
Goddess places the nu"ber of initiated Wiccans in A"erica at =22,2220 the rule of thu"b used abo!e would
therefore indicate a current acti!e "e"bership of = "illion in the &agan Mo!e"ent.
The &agan Mo!e"ent has been doubling in si*e e!ery 1 years for the last >9 years. It is growing faster than
Isla". It is closing in on the Mor"ons. It "erits "ore study. %ortunately, it is "ature enough that it has now
nurtured its own stable of scholars.
:o"e 5uestions I a" going to atte"pt to consider briefly here include4
-. ?ow can one deli"it the &agan Mo!e"ent@ What groups consider the"sel!es to be "e"bers of it and
what groups don3t@
1. Is the &agan Mo!e"ent actually a single religious "o!e"ent@ Or is it an alliance of se!eral generally
si"ilar religious "o!e"ents@
>. What is the sociological structure of the &agan Mo!e"ent@ ?ow do the !arious churches within the
&agan Mo!e"ent relate to one another in practical "atters@
/. ?ow is go!ernance and decision"aking carried out within the &agan Mo!e"ent as a whole and
within the churches and associations of the &agan Mo!e"ent@
I3" not going to offer four distinct answers to these 5uestions0 they o!erlap. On the second, the answer is that it is
both a single "o!e"ent and an alliance of "o!e"ents0 this parado$ arises fro" the co"ple$ity of its structure, as
you will see.
;eli"iting the &agan Mo!e"ent "ust, I think, use the reliable techni5ue of si"ply asking &agans who else is a
&agan. It is a sociological co""onplace that people do know whether or not other people belong to their religion.
The list thus generated will include all Wiccans, and thus all local and national organi*ations whose "e"bership is
li"ited to Wiccans. It will also include "any churches that call the"sel!es &agan but scruple to call their "e"bers
collecti!ely Wiccans, e!en though "any of these "e"bers "ay as indi!iduals also be Wiccans. Me"bership in
&agan churches is not e$clusi!e0 any one person could be a "e"ber of e!ery organi*ation I will "ention. There "ay
also be local organi*ations that do not occur in other "etropolitan areas. These "ay include4
Jewish &agan Te"ples
<ere"onial "agick lodges with a &agan theology
Tantric &agan te"ples
Aocal &agan churches
In any one "etropolitan area, the "e"bers of all these organi*ations, with their hea!ily o!erlapping "e"bership,
tend to function as a single large religious co""unity. Tanya Auhr"annBs Persuasions of the Witch's Craft shows
that this sort of o!erlapping "e"bership in occult organi*ations e$isted in Aondon during the -.C2s and -.D2s0 this
pattern has, in fact, been typical for the WMT for the last two centuries.
One red herring that "ust be cleared away before we can consider 5uestions of structure is the state"ent
that (Wiccan Traditions are like deno"inations.) This asserts that the Traditions are the "aor structural ele"ent
within the <raft, and because of this "isperception, infor"ation about the <raft in reference books tends to be
categori*ed in ter"s of Traditions. Insofar as the state"ent "eans that Traditions are theological !arieties within the
sa"e o!erall religion, it is not too obectionableEe$cept for the fact that "any Traditions differ not in their
theology, but in other ways.
The "aor proble" with the state"ent is that, in A"erican parlance, a deno"ination is a self,go!erning
church, and Wiccan Traditions are anything but that. Father, a co!en3s Tradition refers to its liturgical style, that is,
to its +ook of :hadows. The tradition consists of all the detailed ways in which each co!en carries out its liturgy and
works its initiation rituals, of what rules it follows internally and in relating to other Witches and &agans, of what
"aterials are in its +ook of :hadows, which only its initiates are allowed to see, and so on. All +ooks of :hadows
are deri!ed at least conceptually fro" the one created by Gerald Gardner and ;oreen 6aliente during the decade
-./C,-.9C, but the writing of a +ook of :hadows has beco"e an artfor" within the Wiccan "o!e"ent. There are
now certainly hundreds of +o:s, and perhaps thousands, in circulation.
:econdarily, a co!en3s Tradition refers to the initiatory lineage of its founders, usually its ?igh &riestess
and ?igh &riest. :ince each co!en is autono"ous, a co!en can change its Tradition by adopting a different +o:, and
a ?igh &riestess, e!en a"ong the strictest of the Gardnerians, can be gi!en ad!ice, but not orders, by the &riestess
who initiated her. Once fully e"powered to run her own co!en by recei!ing the Third ;egree of initiation, a ?igh
&riestess does not ha!e to get her initiatorBs per"ission for anything she chooses to do0 there is no hierarchic
authority. %urther"ore, "any co!ens are self,founded0 "any ha!e no records of their own ancestry0 and few ha!e
any practical reason to care about such historical "atters. Thus a co!en3s Tradition has nothing to do with "atters of
co""unity decision"aking and go!ernance, and in practice is not i"portant at all.
We can begin to understand the structural situation by !isuali*ing a set of concentric rings with the following labels
7you can draw this for yourself if you like8. I gi!e e$a"ples of organi*ations for the &uget :ound area, where I
happen to be. Other e$a"ples can be filled in for e!ery "etropolitan area in A"erica and <anada.
-. Orthodo$ Gardnerians.
1. Fefor" Gardnerians.
>. Gclectic Gardnerians
/. Gardnerian offshoots
9. +ritish Traditional Witches
=. Other ('on,Gardnerian) Witches
C. Other &agan religions
D. <ere"onial Magicians
.. Other "agickal religions
-2. Third,World religions
-. The "Orthodox" Gardnerians set off all the growth of &aganis" when Fay +uckland brought
Gardnerian Witchcraft to A"erica in -.=>. They are at the #center# of this diagra" because they were the
historical source of the current &agan Mo!e"ent, and are the "ost secreti!e of the organi*ations, all "e"bers
ha!ing taken an oath, which they interpret !ery strictly, not to share infor"ation of certain kinds with anyone
who not also taken e$actly the sa"e oath. As we "o!e outward fro" the center, the groups are progressi!ely
less secreti!e, and generally "ore willing to work freely with other &agans and Magickal groups.
1. The "Reform" Gardnerians are atte"pting to adapt the Gardnerian rules to life in A"erica.
>. The Eclectic Gardnerians wish to "aintain their connection with the Gardnerian co""unity, but their
adaptations of rituals go farther afield than those of the Fefor" Gardnerians.
/. The Gardnerian offshoots are not atte"pting to "aintain for"al co"pliance with any of the Orthodo$
GardneriansB rules and regulations, and are e!en "ore eclectic.
Within these first four rings there are Lineages4 fa"ily trees of related co!ens which all trace back to the
sa"e ?igh &riestess, who ser!es as the acti!e ueen of the Aineage.
9. The !ritish Traditionals are co!ens that clai" to be non,Gardnerian, but in fact adhere so closely to
Gardnerian orthopra$is that they can work together in for"al churches, such as the 'ew Wiccan <hurch.
=. Other "non#Gardnerian$ co%ens. This is easily the largest category, outnu"bering the official
Gardnerians by about a hundred to one.
Within these last two rings 7so"eti"es o!erlapping slightly with the Gclectic Gardnerians and with other
&agan religions8 there are Traditions4 fa"ily trees of co!ens that supposedly go back to so"e founder
other than Gardner , that go back to a refor"er, or that were ad"ittedly recently founded. :o"e of these
traditions are organi*ed as for"al churches, such as the Fowan Tree <hurch, which ca"e to :eattle fro"
Minneapolis !ia Aos Angeles.
Ainking these si$ rings are net&or'ing organi(ations whose "e"bership is li"ited to Wiccans. These can
be local, national, or both, like the <o!enant of the Goddess. On the local le!el these pro!ide a social
structure that allows co!en leaders to "aintain their autono"y, and yet co""unicate with one another
regularly enough to create a cli"ate of opinion within their o!erall religious co""unity that ser!es as peer
pressure and thus so"e analog of go!ern"ent. Often such a networking association will ser!e to coordinate
local :abbats. On the national le!el these ser!e as national churches. :o"e of these are4
The A5uarian Tabernacle <hurch, in Inde$
The <o!enant of the Goddess4 'orthwest Aocal <ouncil
C. Other Pagan religions are essentially the sa"e sort of religion as Wicca, but their "e"bers refer to
the"sel!es as &agans rather than Witches. To so"e e$tent, Gardnerian Wicca is self,defined as an Anglo,<eltic
religion nati!e to the +ritish Isles0 so people interested in reconstructing &agan religions of other ti"es and
places 7ancient Ggypt, classical Greece, India, Africa, etc.8 ha!e so"eti"es hesitated to call the"sel!es
Witches. Also, groups that began as a !ery different sort of religion 7such as the <hurch of All Worlds, the
Fefor"ed ;ruids of 'orth A"erica, and the ;iscordians8 and blosso"ed only when they disco!ered and began
to assi"ilate the theology and practices of &agan Wicca, still hesitate to define the"sel!es strictly as Witches
and not as &agans. The &agan organi*ations that ha!e grown during the last se!eral decades are precisely those
whose central decision"aking body functions as a <raft co!en. 7In -D.> the secret Inner <ourt within the
?er"etic Order of the Golden ;awn was a Fosicrucian chapter, but in the Order of the Magi in <hicago, it was
a witch co!en, ust as, in -..>, the Inner <ourt within one Golden ;awn offshoot in southern <alifornia was a
Witchcraft co!en.8 Typically, in any "etropolitan area in A"erica, there will be one or "ore local chapters of
each of these kinds of organi*ations. %or e$a"ple,
The <hurch of All Worlds4 'ests in +laine and :o. :eattle
The %ellowship of Isis4 one Ayceu"
Ar 'draiocht %ein and other ;ruid groups0 A;% gro!es in :eattle and Oly"pia
The Asatru %ree Asse"bly and other 'orse &agans0 two Asatru garths
The <o!enant of Hnitarian Hni!ersalist &agans0 chapters in :eattle, Taco"a, and Oly"pia
The <hurch of the Gternal :ource0 not represented
'on,Wiccan %e"inist :pirituality groups0 two
The ;iscordian :ociety4 Illu"inati Motorcycle <lub, in Taco"a
Ainking these se!en rings are regional net&or'ing associations of co!ens of di!erse Traditions and
&agans of other sorts. Within these there are often committees, with "e"bership pulled fro" the entire
co""unity, dedicated to sponsoring, organi*ing, and hosting the eight :abbats of the Wheel of the Iear or
festi!als, which are so"eti"es tied to the :abbat dates. Aocal gatherings usually in!ol!e only a few
hundred people, but the national festi!als, which ha!e beco"e the "aor public "anifestation of the
"o!e"ent during the last 12 years, "ay draw se!eral thousand people. That is, Wiccans and other &agans
regard each other as "e"bers of the sa"e general sort of &agan religion, and so can participate in public
worship together.
Another typical co""unity effort is pro!ision of a Gate&ay. This is a procedure by which newco"ers can
find their way to an open circle, attend free classes, get to know "e"bers of the co""unity, and decide
whether Wicca and &aganis" appeals to the" as a spiritual path. Again, "e"bers of the co""ittee that
pro!ides this ser!ice are drawn broadly fro" the co""unity. Aocally, this Gateway group is called Our
Aady of the Garth and :ky, and it "eets at the full "oon 7usually8 at the Jueen Anne Masonic ?all.
:o"eti"es leaders of co!ens, or of other kinds of s"all Western Magickal Tradition groups, will for"
#leaders grou)s# that pro!ide peer counseling, discussion of leadership proble"s, and generally so"ething
like professional networking opportunities. These groups "ay e$ist separately or within the structure of an
There "ay be other sorts of local organi*ations. %or e$a"ple, there is the Traditions <o""unity Fesource <enter in
%ederal Way.
?owe!er, there is no for"al church structure as such that includes both Wiccans and other types of &agans.
Gfforts that began in the early -.C2s always led to the conclusion that there was not enough co""on
ground on beliefs, practices, structure, etc., to allow creation of a church that would acco""odate all0 and
this conclusion then led to the founding of the <o!enant of the Goddess as a church only for Wiccan
In the -.D2s de"ographic studies showed that al"ost all &agans were !oracious readers, that is, in the top
12 percent of the population that reads books, and that they tended strongly to be e"ployed in the co"puter
industry. This trend has strengthened, and that is an understate"ent. The Internet has beco"e the "ain
co""unication channel for &agans and especially for Wiccans. There are cyberco!ens, "ailing lists, chat
roo"s, e,*ines, I<J groups, and, of course, Websites de!oted to co!ens and e!ery other sort of
organi*ation "entioned here. I don3t think it is physically possible for one person to read all the new
infor"ation on Wicca and the &agan Mo!e"ent that appears on the 'et e!ery day. As a result, the sort of
peer consultation, council "eetings, and group decision"aking that could occur only annually a few years
ago can now happen within a few "inutes e!ery "onth, e!ery week, or e!en e!ery day. This technological
re!olution as, of course, affected "any groups and aspects of life and work in A"erica, but it has affected
the &agans far "ore strongly than any other group I know about.
D. The *eremonial +agic'al Lodges historically predate the &agan "o!e"ent by al"ost a century, and
were one source for GardnerBs 7and othersB8 creation of "odern Witchcraft in the -.>2s. +ut Magickal Aodges
now are !ery different fro" the Magickal Aodges then4 in "e"bership, in purposes, in structure, and in
interests. :o"e Magickal Aodges are "ore aligned with &aganis"0 so"e with the older sort of Judaeo,<hristian
"agick. In the for"er kind, there is "uch o!erlapping of "e"bership with &agan organi*ations.
One "ight e$pect to find networking associations of &agans, <ere"onial Magicians, and perhaps "e"bers
of other "agickal religions, but in practice these people do not find their religions to be si"ilar enough to
allow co""on worship ser!ices 7and it did take the Witches and <ere"onialists 5uite a while to grasp
this8. Witches generally cannot understand or tolerate the apparently #<hristian# !ocabulary of the older
Magickal groups. ?owe!er, "e"bers of these groupings do si"ply attend each otherBs se"i,public
gatherings as indi!iduals if they choose.
Aocal e$a"ples include4
%la"ing :word &ronaos KC 7OTO8
?er"etic :ociety of the Golden ;awn, Auburn
<hurch of the <ad"on, a her"etic church
:ociety of Ao!e Alche"ists, Aake :te!ens0 "ay be co""unalist
.. There are other sorts of magic'al religions, of Fosicrucian or Masonic or Theosophical or e!en
Mor"on pro!enance, but they are not so plentiful now, not co"pared to the &agans. The 'ew Age "o!e"ent
in general falls about here in relation to the &agans.
Although there are no specifically religious associations that include both &agan Witches and "e"bers of
"agickal religions in general, there are ")olitical" organi(ations. That is, although Witches, occultists,
'ew Agers, etc., do not agree on theology, they do agree that they all ha!e a right to their own theology,
and so for" associations to defend those rights. One of the first of these was Isaac +onewits3 A5uarian
Anti,;efa"ation Aeague, for"ed in about -.C>. Others include the Witches Anti,;efa"ation Aeague, the
&agan Awareness Aeague, etc. These associations usually ha!e local <hapters or contact persons scattered
across the country0 and ha!e often been concerned with outreach, that is, with being si"ultaneously contact
centers and screening de!ices intended to connect indi!idual seekers with near,by groups. The lists of local
contacts for such organi*ations during the last few decades are at the sa"e ti"e lists of the national leaders
for the &agan "o!e"ent0 the sa"e na"es appear, o!er and o!er again, as contacts, while the organi*ations
co"e and go.
This persistence of certain leaders3 na"es leads to a central fact about the &agan Mo!e"ent. Michael Iork
7see his article in Paganism Today8 has cited a "odel, de!eloped by sociologists Auther Gerlach and
6irginia ?ines for describing the structure of so"e co"pletely different types of social organi*ations, that
applies to both the &agan and the 'ew Age "o!e"ents,,and to Western Magickal Tradition "anifestations
in general. This is the :eg"ented &olycentric Integrated 'etwork 7or :&I'8 "odel. The "odel, and the
Western Magickal Tradition, is polycentric4 it has "any centers of power and authority, not ust one or a
few. It is a network of indi!iduals who interact with one another as e5uals in a continually shifting and
e!ol!ing pattern, and #groups# are "erely the concentric circles that one can draw around each indi!idual
in the network. The &agan Mo!e"ent has been critici*ed for not being able to "aintain stable social
structures, i.e., big churches. &aganis", howe!er, is a "o!e"ent that !alues indi!iduals "ore than
organi*ations. In traditional Western religion, the church persists, and indi!iduals co"e and go. In
&aganis" and other "anifestations of the WMT, indi!iduals persist, and organi*ations co"e and go.
Lnowing that the :&I' "odel applies to se!eral different kinds of social structures thus helps us see that
the Western Magickal Tradition and its "anifestations are perfectly nor"al0 they si"ply obey their own
-2. There are "any "third#&orld" religions that &agans find si"ilar enough to be of so"e use or interest,
such as ?induis", 'ati!e A"erican religion, or the African,A"erican religions. +ut this is back in the
"ainstrea" of religious studies0 so I won3t pursue it further.