So, did you hear that there are now more Wiccan believers in America than there are Presbyterians?
If you’ve been on social media lately, there is a good chance that you have heard this spin on some Wicca numbers from — Who else? — the Pew Research Center.
If you are looking for a blunt, crystalized statement of an alleged story in American culture, it never hurts to turn to The New York Post. Here is the top of a recent story that ran with this trendy headline: “Witch population doubles as millennials cast off Christianity.”
If you were interested in witchcraft in 1692, you probably would have been jailed or burned at the stake. If you’re interested in witchcraft in 2018, you are probably an Instagram influencer.
From crystal subscription boxes to astrologist-created lip balm, the metaphysical has gone mainstream. Millennials today know more about chakras than your kooky New Age aunt. That’s why it’s no surprise that the generation that is blamed for killing everything is actually bringing popularity to centuries-old practices.
According to the Pew Research Center (click here for .pdf), about 1.5 million Americans identify as Wiccan or pagan. A decade ago, that number was closer to 700,000. Presbyterians, by comparison, have about 1.4 million votaries.
It would be interesting to know how this story hatched at this time, seeing as how the Pew numbers — which are certainly interesting — are from 2014.
No doubt about it, this is a story. However, this specific twist on the numbers depends on definitions of two crucial terms — “Wiccans” and “Presbyterians.” It’s an interesting comment on the age in which we live that the first term is probably easier to define than the second.
So let’s think about that for a second, with the help of a GetReligion-esque piece by Mark Tooley, over at the Juicy Ecumenism blog. Yes, that site is operated by the conservative Institute on Religion & Democracy. However, I think this discussion — centering on the challenge of defining denominational terms — will be of interest to all journalists who are about accurate, when using statistics and basic religious terms. Here is a crucial statement early on:
… Faddish stories can sometimes be ginned up based on old numbers.
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.
So one half of the equation — the Wiccan statistic — is based on the number of people who say they identify, in a non-legalistic way, with a specific set of pagan beliefs. The Presbyterian number is stated very broadly, in these news reports, when it is actually a membership number about ONE SPECIFIC Presbyterian flock.
Vague apples? Yes. A specific smaller orange? You bet.
Is this a picky, unimportant question? Well, that depends on whether journalists care about accuracy.
At the very least, a journalist reporting this story needs to know how many “Presbyterians” there are in the United States.
Ah! This would require adding up the memberships of 30-plus Presbyterian and or Reformed denominations (yes, that’s a Wiki number, but the hyperlinks to the various bodies work). That requires some knowledge of church history. The bottom line: When I was a religion-beat pro in Charlotte, N.C., I covered at least six different streams of Presbyterianism in that one city alone. That doesn’t include the related world of “Reformed” flocks.
Let’s go back to Tooley for some additional information:
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. …
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.
There is much to think about here. Consider this a warning that religion-beat professionals need to share with their editors and copy-desk teams.