08/02/2014 09:00 am ET

Children Of Pagan Families Don't Always Stick With The Faith, Just Like Those From Other Religions

Graham Huntley/CC

(RNS) Oh, the kids.

They don’t know the history. They don’t know how hard it was in the old days. And many ditch their spiritual upbringing for the next new thing.

It happens to Catholics, evangelicals, Jews, and yes, pagans, too.

Second-generation pagans — those whose parents were converts to pagan spirituality — are a lot like their peers in other faiths. They often do spirituality their own way. Or not at all.

“Born-to-it pagans just are who we are,” said Angela Roberts Reeder, 43, whose parents were involved in ceremonial magic when she was young.

This week, Reeder said she might continue the tradition by joining a public celebration for the first harvest festival of Lughnasa, also called Lammas, at a Washington, D.C., temple.

“Today, it’s so much easier to be openly pagan than 20 or 30 years ago” when converts often faced strong disapproval by family and society when they came out of the “broom closet,” so to speak, Reeder said.

Where the first generation had to struggle to find teachers, books and like-minded pagans, the Internet now offers a wide knowledge stream and infinite meet-up possibilities.

Still, the tendency of youth to rebel against their upbringing and to hunt for something new is ageless.

A 2007 study by LifeWay Research found that among the 65 percent of millennials who call themselves Christians many are no longer observant. More than two in three said they rarely or never pray with others, attend worship services or read the Bible or sacred texts.

It may be even more challenging to hand down paganism’s free-form spirituality from one generation to the next.

An author and a scholar teamed up last year to survey more than 160 second-generation pagans to see how they identify as adults. Laura Wildman-Hanlon, a Wiccan priestess in Amherst, Mass., and author of “Celebrating the Pagan Soul,” and Julie Fennell, an assistant professor of sociology at Gallaudet University in Washington D.C., presented their research at a sociology conference last fall.

They found that 49 percent of second-generation pagans had shifted to identifying as “nones” — people who say they have no particular religious identity — a group that now represents 20 percent of Americans overall and more than a third of millennials.

Wildman-Hanlon described a rise in “cultural paganism — Wiccan wannabes who have read a book and been to a ritual or two.”

However, Fennell said, they also found that those who grew up with “seriously involved” pagan parents were more likely to stay with some form of a pagan spirituality.

Fennell, 33, found her own pagan identity in her college years — to her non-pagan parents’ dismay.

Now a “devout Wiccan,” she expects to celebrate Lammas this weekend munching on an anatomically correct gingerbread man. The cookie fits with the grain harvest theme of the holiday and the pagan view that is “actively positive about sexuality. Most of the world’s religions are not so cool with that,” Fennell said.

“I can’t think of anything in all of paganism where everyone would agree on what you are supposed to do for a celebration,” Fennell said. “There’s no one ‘handbook’ and even if there were, you might choose to ignore it. I love my disorganized religion.”

Mark Brown, 44, of St. Louis, whose father would speak of the “Old Ones” when Brown was young, said people grow up to discover paganism “either fits them or it doesn’t and they move on.”

“Our traditions make you responsible for your own path, your own learning. That’s a lot of hard work and some people decide it’s not for them,” said Brown. He’s a high priest in a Reconstructionist Celt tradition — an earth-centered spirituality that celebrates Celtic divinities.

Diana Rice, 58, grew up loving anything with magic but never met a pagan until she was in her 20s. In the late 1980s, she enrolled in a class in Chapel Hill, N.C., on “moon mysteries.” She and some fellow students organized a group just as American interest in paganism began to boom in the late 1990s.

Nearly 3 million people now identify with those new religious movements under the overall umbrella of paganism or neo-paganism. They may self-identify as witches, Wiccan, Druid, heathen or follow any polytheistic or pantheistic tradition that holds the earth as sacred and sees masculine and feminine forms of divinity.

Rice’s group, The Fringe, or The Lunatic Fringe, lasted 16 years, peaking when there would be 50 to 60 people at rituals, before fading out in 2005.

“We would do cutting-edge stuff, like interacting with people embodying divine beings, to provoke thought and improve yourself. We didn’t just come to a spot and wave our arms around. It wasn’t just church in a circle, “ Rice recalled.

Today’s pagans are more passive, said Rice, who now celebrates privately.

Katrina Messenger, 58, a high priestess in a pagan group she named the Order of the Elemental Mysteries, blamed the ‘90s New Age boom for the generation gap in knowledge and participation.

Paganism has “gotten so big so fast, it outstrips our ability to pass on lore,” said Messenger. “Younger pagans are less familiar with even basic fairy tales like ‘Hansel and Gretel.’ If they know a fairy tale or myth, they know the Disney version unless maybe there’s a graphic novel about it,” said Messenger.

So, to educate pagans of any age, Messenger established her Reflections Mystery School and she organizes public rituals with Connect DC. She formed the group in 1999 to bring “magic, mystery and celebration” to the nation’s capital. Some rituals are done in public parks. Others are held in a room adjacent to her home, where there’s an altar that is redecorated each season, and a labyrinth path is cut into the front lawn.

Messenger believes first generation pagans should welcome newcomers, however rambunctious. “You can’t be like, ‘Hey kids, get off my lawn!’”


  • 1 Symbols
    Wikimedia Commons
    Like many religions, pagans employs certain symbols both as representations of their faith and as images and objects that contain power in and of themselves. The pentacle is probably the most common in paganism, often depicted in art and jewelry. Some say its five points represent the four directions plus the sacred spirit.
  • 2 People
    Wikimedia Commons
    As Harvard's Pluralism Project notes, it is difficult to determine the number of pagan adherents around the world as estimates vary widely. The number may be anywhere between 200,000 and 1 million, or possibly more. Most pagans don't exhibit their religious identity outside of the ritual space (unless they wear clothing or jewelry depicting pagan symbols such as the pentacle.) According to The Pagan Census, modern pagans are distributed fairly even throughout the U.S., with a slight majority on either coast. Men and women of all ages, races and backgrounds practice paganism, though the census said the community tends to skew toward white, middle class women.
  • 3 Sects
    Getty Images
    Contemporary paganism is widespread and somewhat scattered, hence the difficulty counting adherents. Modern paganism does not descend from a singular ancient religion but rather many ancient indigenous and folkloric traditions, and there is no central text to refer to that can shed light on doctrine. There are, however, subtle distinctions that delineate Celtic and northern European sects, Baltic and Slavic sects, Greek and southern European sects, American neopaganism, and other groupings around the world. Some covens (organized groups of pagans) worship specific deities, such as Diana or Odin. Others practice ancient Druidism, such John Rothwell ("Arthur Pendragon") pictured, while some focus on activism, such as the Reclaiming tradition.
  • 4 Sites
    Getty Images
    In general, pagan worship centers around earth and spirit, as opposed to specific structures imbued with sacredness (ie. a church, Mecca, the Vatican, etc.) Forests, hilltops, urban warehouses and individual's homes can operate as ritual sites, especially because many pagans take measures to "create sacred space" for rituals regardless of where they are. That said, some natural or ancient sites, such as Stonehenge or Machu Picchu, may hold particular importance for some pagans.
  • 5 Triple Goddess
    Wikimedia Commons
    The triple goddess in modern paganism embodies the maiden, the mother and the crone. These three aspects are meant to encompass the full power of the goddess, reflected in the moon's cycles. The waxing moon represents the maiden; the full moon represents the mother; and the waning moon represents the crone. Pagans will often hold gatherings or do personal meditation to observe these moon phases. In addition to the goddess, some pagans worship a masculine divinity, occasionally in the form of the Horned God or the Green Man. Many also revere the natural world as divine, as well.
  • 6 Sabbats - Quarter Days
    Wikimedia Commons
    There are eight sabbats that make up the pagan "wheel of the year," though not all pagans observe all eight. Each sabbat corresponds with different seasonal events of the year. Pagans celebrate the winter solstice, spring equinox, summer solstice and autumn equinox (or "quarter days") to mark the deepest part of the season and the lengthening or shortening of daylight.
  • 7 Sabbats - Cross Quarter Days
    Getty Images
    The other four sabbats, or "cross quarter days," are Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh and Samhain. Imbolc falls in early February and celebrates the onset of springtime, encouraging the sprouting of seeds and new life. Beltane is an early summer celebration in May, often seen as a fertility festival. Lughnasadh falls in August and is the first of several harvest festivals. Samhain coincides with the western Halloween and is a holiday for paying tribute to the deceased. It is often seen as a time when the veil between this world and the afterlife is thinnest.
  • 8 Altars
    Wikimedia Commons
    Pagans often construct altars for rituals and to keep in their homes, and these may act as offerings to specific deities or to 'the goddess' more generally. Each object holds certain meaning, such as rocks to symbolize earth, seeds to symbolize intentions and new life, bread to symbolize bounty, and so on.
  • 9 Tools
    Wikimedia Commons
    Pagans occasionally employ tools in rituals and personal practice that may either function in ritual procedures (such as an athame, pictured), aid in divination (such as a pendulum), assist in cleansing (such as water or incense) or pay respects to a specific deity (such as a statuette). Other tools may include drums, candles, ribbons, cauldrons and more, depending on the specific ritual or practice for which they will be used.
  • 10 Fire
    Wikimedia Commons
    Fire plays a prominent role in many pagan rituals and in personal practice (through candles and incense.) During some rituals pagans circle around a large fire, which is seen to hold transformative power. Fire may also be used in cleansing, divination, trance and ecstatic dancing.
  • 11 Rituals
    Wikimedia Commons
    The anatomy of any pagan ritual will vary from group to group, but Reclaiming -- one of the best-known American pagan groups -- identifies several key components. Typically rituals begin with grounding and cleansing, then move to the 'casting' of a circle. Leaders and/or participants will often invoke deities, then guide one another into trance or magic work. At the end, participants often share food and drink before closing the ritual by devoking and opening the space once again.
  • 12 Magic
    Magic in paganism and witchcraft is primarily about change and transformation. By some accounts, magic allows practitioners to remove the barriers of what they think is possible so that they can manipulate the physical or spiritual world. Most groups shun what is sometimes referred to as "black magic" and instead employ magic crafts that encourages practitioners to draw health and fortune into their lives and the lives of others. Some magical activities include chanting, trance, craft work and more elaborate manipulations of objects.
  • 13 Invoking Deities
    Getty Images
    One of the key elements of pagan rituals and personal practice is the invocation of specific deities. The chosen deity may correspond to a certain sabbat (such as Brigid for Imbolc). The invocation is intended to invite the god or goddess to assist the ritual or so the participant may come to know the divine through embodiment.
  • 14 Personal Practice
    Wikimedia Commons
    The Pagan Census found in 2003 that just over 50% of respondents said they were solitary practitioners. This means they do not belong to a coven and may not have been 'trained' by a larger spiritual organization. Solitary practitioners observe rituals and practice magic on their own, or perhaps occasionally in small groups. Even for those involved in covens, personal practice is seen as key for developing magic skills and deepening spiritual connection.
  • 15 Pagan Leaders
    Wikimedia Commons
    Modern pagan leaders are often hard to identify due to the dispersed nature of the faith. Individuals may be trained and ordained by specific seminaries or by independent groups (such as Reclaiming). In general, pagan sects are non- or semi-hierarchical, but certain individuals may hold sway in the community due to their large followings (Such as Starhawk, pictured) or their influence through authorship.
  • 16 Marriage
    Wikimedia Commons
    Along with legal marriage and domestic partnership, some pagans practice handfasting, a ritualistic but not legal form of marriage. According to BBC, handfasting rituals are believed to predate Christianity and was certainly present by medieval times. During the ceremony, the couple will tie their wrists together with ribbons or twine to represent their union.
  • 17 Community
    Wikimedia Commons
    Paganism is by no means an adults-only tradition. The 1999 Pagan Census found that just over 40% of participants reported that they had children. The growing number of children in the pagan community has lead some groups to open their rituals to families and youth, adjusting some practices that may not have been appropriate or accessible for young people. In some traditions pagans pass on traditions and lore to children through trainings and camps, a form of spiritual education common in many religions. In her book, "Circle Round", pagan leader Starhawk outlines practical tools and lessons for conveying pagan traditions to children, as well as for raising pagan families.
  • 18 Activism
    Getty Images
    Though not a rule for pagan communities, some groups make activism and community work central to their practice. Some of the causes promoted by pagan groups include environmental protection, gender and racial equality, LGBT rights and the preservation of sacred indigenous sites.