Sunday, 22 November 2015

How Many Polytheists / Pagans Are There?

Actor Jeremy Irons lights a huge effigy of the "Borgia Bull"
in a Pagan inspired celebration in season two of The Borgias
One thing seems certain – there are not too many people in Western nations who identify as polytheists … or are there? If social media, such as Facebook and reddit, is anything to go by there are perhaps only a few thousand people in the English speaking world who practice Roman polytheism. The number of Germanic polytheists in English language dominant countries seems to be higher, but even then it seems the numbers are only in the tens of thousands at most.Statistical information only gets us so far, because meaningful data is limited, with the United Kingdom giving us perhaps the best hint of the true numbers. In the 2011 UK census the following written answers were given to “what is your religion”:**
  • Pagan = 56,620
  • Wicca = 11,766
  • Druid = 4,189
  • Heathen = 1,958
  • Witchcraft = 1,276
  • Shamanism = 650
  • Animism = 541
  • Reconstructionist = 251
  • Total of the above listed categories = 77,251
There are approximately 64 million citizens of the United Kingdom. The combined population of three culturally similar countries – Australia, New Zealand and Canada – is close to that of the UK so we can perhaps add up to another 75,000 polytheists into the mix (or at least 60,000).*** I was unable to find meaningful statistical information regarding niche religions in the United States, though I came across estimates ranging between 200,000 and 1,000,000: pluralism.org. The US has roughly five times the population of the UK so we might guess that there are around 385,000 polytheists in the US. This gives us over half a million in the English speaking world alone. My guess is that there are at least a million people worldwide, speaking numerous languages, who adhere to European and near eastern polytheisms (aka Paganism or Neo-Paganism) – maybe. The truth is that there are no reliable figures available for this. Western polytheists very often reside in the shadows. Many of us are discreet, deliberately choosing not to reveal our spirituality to friends, work colleagues, or even family members to avoid adverse judgment. I think this is because in Western societies polytheism is often perceived as a somehow unworthy form of religious expression. As the Encyclopaedia Britannica points out in its “monotheism” entry:
“Because Christianity is a monotheistic religion, the monotheistic conception of the divine has assumed for Western culture the value of a self-evident axiom. This unquestioned assumption becomes clear when it is realized that for Western culture there is no longer an acceptable choice between monotheism and polytheism but only a choice between monotheism and atheism [britannica.com].”
I have often keenly felt the reality of this Western tendency – it was only through prolonged exposure to Buddhism that the legitimacy of polytheism as a methodology for understanding and interpreting the divine was established for me. Before I explored Buddhism it did not even occur to me that polytheism was a viable religious path.

As it is, Pagan religions can feel somewhat underground and scattered; it can be hard to feel that one is part of a widely practiced form of spirituality, but the truth is that we are not really the minority group it can be tempting to think we are. It may be that Paganism is practiced by a proportionally small number of the world but polytheistic religions in general are flourishing, and I think it is fair to say that European and near eastern polytheisms are on the same spectrum as polytheisms worldwide.

Hindu Diwali celebration. Source: vikasacharya.wordpress.com
The most obviously similar polytheistic religion is Hinduism, which has over a billion adherents and is certainly not a homogenous religion but rather is the sum total of numerous polytheistic belief systems emanating from the huge geographic region that is south Asia and linked by “various common elements such as Vedic tradition, the caste system, religious and moral law, epics and myths, and reverence for spiritual teachers” (Dallapiccola, Hindu: Visions of the Sacred). Shinto is also obviously similar to Paganism, and claims at least three million followers. Less obvious, but no less polytheistic, are folk religionists worldwide.
“Folk or traditional religions are faiths closely associated with a particular group of people, ethnicity or tribe. They often have no formal creeds or sacred texts. Examples of folk religions include African traditional religions, Chinese folk religions, Native American religions and Australian Aboriginal religions. 
Folk religions are challenging to measure. Less institutionalized and more diffuse than many other faiths … [pewforum.org].”
The statements above could be easily adapted to describe many polytheists exploring traditional European spirituality. Not counting Pagans reviving European and near eastern traditions, it is estimated that there are over four hundred million folk religionists worldwide. The nature of their spiritualities are immensely diverse but at the very least Chinese folk religion is certainly polytheistic. There are at least 1.357 billion people in China alone and more than 20% of that number are conservatively estimated as being folk religionists. This equates to over 295 million Chinese folk religionists in China alone. Then there are the millions of Chinese living throughout the rest of the Asia Pacific region who, in my experience, are often much more devout than mainland Chinese, but whose numbers are difficult to estimate.

Then there is Buddhism, which is often regarded in the West as being somehow non-theistic or even atheistic. Deeper inspection demonstrates that many if not most lineages of Buddhism are polytheistic, though worship of Gods is not the centrepiece of Buddhist practice. The number of Buddhists in the world is estimated at over 487 million.

If we add the number of Hindus, Shinto adherents, folk religionists and Buddhists together we get a staggering number of 1,927,660,000 polytheists worldwide. Even if we feel that some of the folk religionists are not really polytheistic for some reason (eg, I confess to knowing very little about African and Native American folk religions) and recognise that many Western Buddhists are non-theistic (the number of Buddhists in the Americas and Europe are estimated to be over 5,620,000) we are still left with easily more than a billion and a half polytheists worldwide. As people who revere the divine in the form of a universe consisting of multiple Deities we Pagans are part of the worldwide polytheistic community – diverse as it is. As the Encyclopedia Britannica states:
“Polytheism characterises virtually all religions other than Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which share a common tradition of monotheism [britannica.com].”
Through this gaze polytheism is a worldwide religion with hundreds of millions of adherents practising in many diverse ways, just as there are many Gods. Vive la différence.

________
In a 2013 English language online census of Germanic polytheists worldwide 16,700 Heathens were counted (norsemyth.org), however I believe that number to be lower than the real count, judging by the number of people connected with Facebook pages and groups associated with Germanic Heathenry. 
** The option to tick a box, as was the case for the more common religions, was not available – note that it seems no-one, or less than one hundred people, wrote “polytheism”: ons.gov.uk.
*** In a 2011 census in Canada 25,495 respondents identified as "Pagan" (and 10,225 of this number identified as Wiccan), but the number of respondents who may have given other answers that amount to the same thing (eg, Heathen or Druid) are unknown. In the same census 40,195 people were listed as belonging to religions that were “not included elsewhere”: www12.statcan.gc.caIn a 2011 census in Australia respondents had to look up specific codes to select religions already designated within the census (thus people identifying as "Heathen" or "Shamanist" or  another term not already provided for in the census could not be counted). Saliently, the results were:
- Paganism = 16,861
- Wiccan/Witchcraft = 8,413
- Nature Religions = 3,507
- Druidism = 1,049
- Animism = 780
- Ancestor Veneration = 509
- Nature religions not further defined = 92
- Total of the above = 31,211
The number of respondents who selected "Religious Belief not further defined” was 35,168 and the respondents who selected the virtually identical code for “not defined” was 132,597. The number of respondents who selected “Australian Aboriginal Traditional Religion” (which I understand to be polytheistic) was 7,360: sbs.com.au/censusexplorerIn a 2013 census in New Zealand the following salient results were recorded:
- Nature and Earth Based Religions not elsewhere classified = 3,099
- Wiccan = 1,452
- Nature and Earth Based Religions not further defined = 699
- Animist = 243
- Druid = 165
- Total of the above = 5,658
The number of respondents who selected “Other Religions nec” was 225 and for “Religion Unidentifiable” it was 16,146: stats.govt.nz.
__________


Written by M. Sentia Figula.

8 comments:

  1. I am an Hellenic polytheist who also is a devotee of Sekhmet and Bast. I "met" the Gods when I was a child back in the mid-1950s so I have never felt that there could be any other world view. The Christian deity was certainly never interested in me ;-). However, I do NOT identify with the modern "pagan" community. In fact, I do not generally want to have anything to do with generic neo-"pagans, neo-"wiccans", some Wiccans, and the like. I do identify with the historic polytheistic communities. Here in the USA there is a rather vociferous group of so-called humanist/atheist "pagans". These people I do not understand at all. It is difficult being at the the beginning of the revival in the West of a school of thought which many had thought went dead. It is also exciting.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I too am not greatly interested Wicca, and I am definitely not an atheist but in a world where Abrahamic monotheism looms large I seek to find safety in numbers☺ If you look up the Encyclopaedia Britannica online the following definition for "Neo-Paganism" is given: "any of several spiritual movements that attempt to revive the ancient polytheistic religions of Europe and the Middle East". So this was the definitions I went with for the purposes of this post. In October 2012 I wrote a post talking about why I accept the term “Pagan” and even “Neo-Pagan” even though “polytheist” describes me very well too – for me personally the terms are all interchangeable. When I first took up an interest in Roman polytheism I just called it Paganism, I didn’t know there was another term – it was only later that I learned that within polytheist communities the term was sometimes thought to be loaded. This is partly why I changed the name of this blog from “neo pagan”, which is what it was called for the first few years, to “neo polytheist” – I didn’t want to alienate the many others who prefer to be called a polytheist rather than a Pagan. However the url already had “pagan” in it so I guess I haven’t been allowed to get away from my Pagan roots!

      Delete
  2. A very interesting topic. The main difficulty when trying to adopt statistics to the pagan world (in a very broad sense) is that we have no official organizations (like a church or a chapter) and the completely different spiritual perpsective when compared to the monotheistic religion. As in the case of the Traditional Roman Spirituality, it is difficult to assimilate this kind of Spirituality to a modern religion: it's a Knowledge with no profane implications, linked to the Antique Traditional Heritage (the Primal Spiritual Heritage).

    Moreover, I think that the problem of the numbers ("how many") may drive to miss the point. I think that focusing on the number is a typical monotheistic approach (proselytism): perhaps it is better to focus our attention on the "quality" aspect of the issue.

    Anyway, we are living in very strange, paradoxical and difficult times where the Divine - in the deeper sense - seems to be totaly removed from the World... Too many people talk about religion (in which sense? difficult to say) and these people seem to be the farest thing from the Divine...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The almost complete lack of institutionalisation amongst Pagans means our numbers will always remain elusive – I agree that this ultimately doesn't matter. The fact that Pagan religions are not dominated by particular organisations (whose populations can be easily quantified) is actually a strength, because this is the condition in which true freedom (of thought, of the spirit) can operate. We don’t look to inflexible scripture (written in a different century for a different society) or institutional priests when we want to understand the divine; we look to the Gods and our own powers of reason and intuition, and we ourselves become priests and priestesses as soon as we establish a shrine – at least this is how I see it.

      On the other hand I think one of the biggest problems people living in Christian or Islamic dominant societies (or post-Abrahamic societies) face when they start to explore Paganism is the fact that Paganism / polytheism is often not viewed as a legitimate spiritual path. Understanding that there are in fact hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Pagans out there (and easily more than a billion polytheists) can be quite validating.

      Delete
    2. I agree with you in particular when evidencing that polytheism is not viewed as a "legitimate spiritual path". This limit can be found not only among monoteists but even among polytheists themselves: maybe it is caused by a feeling of inferiority, a sense of shame, the fear to be mocked... This is the major psychological weakness resulting from a connaturated isolation of polytheism during these times, caused also by the fact that too many subjects have misused the term "polytheism" for political (fascist) or satanic (ridiculous) or folkloristic (i.e. the Lord of the Rings, et simila) groups. This is the field where the (not easy) battle for legimitation should be fight...

      Delete
    3. Incrementally, hour by hour, day by day, year by year, I like to think that things are improving. Christianity is self-evidently on the decline in Western countries (a consequence of widespread literacy I assume - once people start reading the bible for themselves it seems a rather weird collection of writings) and atheism is too bleak and uninspiring to prevail.

      Delete
  3. The tv show supernatural shows tht pagan , wiccan gods, other entities take souls of people. Is there any truth to it? I once during prayer told a Roman god tht I give my hart and soul to you. I meant I wud worship the god wth my entire devotion. But after sayin tht I felt very awkward. Is thr any importnc to all ths? I am sorry if the questn seems offensive.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I am not familiar with this television show so I can't comment on it too much, but I can say that the notion that one’s soul or spirit could be somehow stolen by other beings seems rather unlikely. This television show sounds like it is perpetuating beliefs that arise from the more superstitious/hell-fire arm of Christian thought (not saying all Christians are superstitious btw – just referring to the ones that are; the types who go in for speaking in tongues and exorcisms, for example).

      I think if you said you “gave your heart and soul” to a Deity it does not imply you have made a Faustian pact – generally speaking I strongly believe the Gods are fundamentally benevolent, if they were not then they would not be Gods. However I personally would exercise caution before using such strong words with anyone, Gods or humans, because as a rule we shouldn’t say things unless we truly mean them and we shouldn’t make commitments we cannot keep.

      Delete