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illustration Marianne Wilson

The pagan boom – why young people are turning to non-traditional religions

‘Paganism and witchcraft is about freedom. It puts the (spiritual) power back in your hands’

Census trends tell us the UK is an increasingly secular place, with atheists now outnumbering Christians in England and Wales. Organised religion is also in decline across the pond in the US. In both cases, data reveal that young people are responsible for this trend. Statistics show that millennials are increasingly likely to abandon the monotheism (a belief in one, often male god) they were socialised into as children for more self-determined, spiritual paths during their teens and early twenties.

Dovetailing with this decline is compelling evidence suggesting that, while monotheism declines, an increasing number of young people – ex-faith and otherwise – are identifying as pagan.

“Many young people are leaving organised religion for similar reasons to myself,” says Eileen Nash, 20, an ex-Catholic turned Wiccan. “They’re tired of the shame, they want to ask (theological) questions and they don’t want to be a part of an organisation that promotes discrimination of any kind.”    

This chimes with Jonathan Wooley, 30, an ex-Anglican turned Druid. “As a queer man, I felt like I constantly had to apologise for my sexuality, and beg for forgiveness for something I didn’t choose. Meeting an increasing number of Christians at university – many of whom were bigoted, intolerant and closed minded, performing boring and aesthetically impoverished rituals – convinced me that this was not a spiritual community I wanted anything to do with. So I stopped going to church.”

Pagan – or neopagan – is an umbrella term for an array of practises, paths and traditions, including (but not limited to) Druidry, Heathenry, Hellenism, Wicca and witchcraft (note: not all witches identify as pagan, just as not all pagans are witches).

While monotheistic world faiths worship a sole, male, father-figure god, pagan paths are often polytheistic (revering multiple deities of various genders) and matrifocal, priviliging the divine feminine. Witchcraft, or “liberation spirituality” as Instagram’s Erin Aquarian terms it, is particularly appealing to young, woke, LGBTQ and women of colour, people who identify with the witch as a liberating outsider force, so its little surprise the Craft is enjoying a renaissance among feminists and activists, as the Guardian reported last year.

Pagan traditions are also often nature-based, revering the natural world through ritual and worship. For witches and Druids, this includes observing the stars (astrology) and the turn of the seasons (the agricultural ‘wheel of the year’).  In an age of 24-hour newsfeeds and impending ecological disaster, logging off and reconnecting with nature feels not only salutatory by necessary. “Technological overwhelm often makes people turn to nature and spirituality to feel more centred and connected,” points out Pam Grossman, host of the popular Witch Wave podcast. “This happened during the Industrial Revolution, with the counter-development of Romanticism and Transcendentalism. The more technological we become, the more we long for connection to the sensorial, the natural, the spiritual.”

For many pagans, nature – specifically, land – is indelibly linked to lineages both spiritual and ancestral. “I always felt intuitively that nature was sacred,” recalls Jonathan. “I just didn’t know where to go to acknowledge or learn how to express that. The more I discovered about Druidry, the more I realised it was the natural, traditional, spiritual way of my ancestors. My mother’s family are from North Wales, and my father’s family are from Ireland, so the way of the Druids really appealed to my desire to connect with my heritage.”

Emphasis on reclaiming sacred, indigenous and often pre-Christian spirituality has accelerated in recent years, via Celtic, Norse and Saxon traditions here in the UK and afro/afro-latinx diaspora traditions – Vodon, Santeria, Brujaria  – in the US. For the latter in particular, it’s a bittersweet homecoming, a semi-excavation of mostly oral traditions near decimated and pushed underground by decades of colonialism, slavery and empire.

“Technological overwhelm often makes people turn to nature and spirituality to feel more centred and connected. The more technological we become, the more we long for connection to the sensorial, the natural, the spiritual”

Writer Aya de Leon, for example, has written with devastating clarity on how the same white Europeans who imposed monotheism on people of colour in the Americas are in turn a product of religious colonisation themselves – and all the poorer for it.  As the aforementioned stats show, white westerners in Europe and the US find ourselves increasingly unfulfilled by organised religion, returning to pre-Christian faiths and frequently prone to appropriating the sacred ceremonies of other cultures, such as Mexico’s Day of the Dead.

For many, modern paganism represents a personal and collective process of decolonisation, and a desire for spiritual autonomy. Where monotheism relies almost universally on dogma, hierarchy and doctrine, paganism offers inclusivity and self-direction, where connection to the divine or higher self isn’t mediated through bible-wielding priests or the dark of the confessional booth. “Paganism and witchcraft is about freedom,” says Vicky Black, 28. “It puts the (spiritual) power back in your hands.” Vicky was raised Catholic, but now identifies as a witch. “There are a multitude of reasons why I left the fold, but to sum it up: it just never felt right. I spent years questioning my faith. I wasn’t allowed to choose, I wasn’t allowed to question, I wasn’t allowed to doubt. I just had to believe.”

Witchcraft – with its intuitive, inexpensive and DIY approach to spirituality – requires no such abnegation. Solitary witchcraft in particular – that is, witchcraft practiced alone, by an individual, as opposed to a coven or circle – is especially liberating, allowing the practitioner to cast spells, celebrate holy days and undertake rituals as and when they please, on their own terms. “I can shape my life or destiny any way I want,” says Vicky. “I can believe anything I want and no one can really tell me otherwise. There isn’t a big, old, miserable guy in the sky anymore telling me off for feeling something that I can’t control, or waiting to swoop down and punish me if I set a toe out of line.”

For many ex-faith pagans, a fallow period marks their break from the fold. Eileen identified as agnostic for long time after leaving Catholicism, a period that left her feeling isolated and rudderless. “I struggled a lot with the idea that nothing had meaning. I felt very alone, which wasn’t much better than the shame and frustration I felt as a Catholic.”

For Eileen, Wicca is about free will over blind faith, about following her gut rather than received wisdom. “I feel like Wicca opens my eyes to so many beautiful things in my everyday life. There’s no shame – only peace, understanding, appreciation. I don’t believe I can point my finger at a frog and make it turn into a prince, á la Sabrina the Teenage Witch, but if I want to cast a spell to help me find love or friendship, to gain confidence, or find a boost of luck before a job interview, then I can. Just having the option gives me confidence. Praying to God never gave me that.”  

Monitoring the growth of pagan populations in the UK is a tricky business. While tech fatigue might push us back to nature, the web is also a rich source of esoteric know-how for pagans fledgling and established alike. Arcane knowledge, formerly consigned to historic, expensive or out-of-print texts are increasingly accessible online. Digital trends back this up, revealing a healthy surge in net-savvy pagans both sharing and seeking out information on everything from alchemy and candle magic to tarot and scrying. #WitchesofInstagram had 2.2 million posts on Instagram last year, while #Pagan topped Insta search results with 2.6 million posts.

But independent UK pagan bodies are few on the ground, operating on shoe-string budgets (neither of the organisations Dazed reached out to for comment returned our request), and in spite of consistent lobbying, the UK’s National Statistics Office pointedly refuses to include ‘pagan' as a valid designation alongside other world faiths. They also claim they lack the “appropriate information” to confirm pagan population sizes, according to a 2017 Freedom of Information request.  

The struggle for official recognition isn’t a monolithic desire among UK pagans. Many nurse a healthy distrust of head-counting institutions and actively shun the respectability politics involved in anything government might sanction ‘official’. Unlike organised faiths, pagans are rarely invested in recruiting, leaving would-be pagans seeking out peers, community and mentoring to proactively seek out existing networks, groups and covens.   

“I can shape my life or destiny any way I want. I can believe anything I want and no one can really tell me otherwise”

According to Wooley, who has a PhD in Social Anthropology and studies, the way pagans organised ad socialised in the past is changing. Wooley’s posits in a forthcoming research paper that while the general interest in pagan practices – particularly among millennials – seems higher than ever, IRL pagan community (as a movement of interrelated events, organisations, groups and faith groups) appears to be showing signs of decline across the UK. “Events are being cancelled due to low ticket sales, people struggle to attract volunteers and bookshops and moots are closing across the country.”

Wooley believes this decline is down to factors outside the faith itself, namely austerity. “Voluntarism was critical for the previous generation of societies and events. Nowadays, people are overworked, underpaid and simply don’t have the energy to volunteer their time or take up a long-term course of initiation and training.”

There’s also the issue of stigma, which can still loom large in communities and families who cleave to traditional monotheism; not everyone is ‘out’ about their beliefs. Eileen avoids the topic of witchcraft with her Catholic father. “We don’t talk about it much as it can get a bit tense. I also think both my parents figured it was a phase, but here we are, years later!”

Stigma will do little to quell the pagan boom, says Vicky. “Young people today are fluid. We like to experiment, we’re constantly re-evaluating ourselves, trying to decide exactly what it is that makes us who we are. Something as rigid and frozen as organised religion, which doesn’t embrace change, simply no longer works. Why should we bend ourselves to fit into a system that won’t meet us halfway?”