Paganism, Just Another Religion for Military and Academia

Narragansett, USA - If personal tradition holds, just before sundown Saturday, Michael York will stand before a colonial-style wooden cabinet in his bayside town house here and light a candle. As night falls, it will illuminate the surrounding objects: tarot cards, Tibetan silver bowls, a bell and statues or icons of deities like the Greek earth-mother, Gaia, and the Lithuanian thunder god, Perkunas.

While facing the altar, if past practice holds, Mr. York will invoke the names of the ancestors and loved ones who have died. He will often write down their names, too, and keep that piece of paper in the cabinet. One can mourn on any day, as Mr. York put it recently, but on this occasion, “the veil between the worlds is understood to be thinnest.”

The day that most Americans know as Halloween, a commercial bonanza and secular holiday with only the faintest remnants of its pantheistic origins, Mr. York celebrates as Samhain, the autumnal new year for Pagans. And for Mr. York, Paganism is indeed a proper noun, connoting a specific religion that he has observed for decades.

Shortly after Samhain ends, Mr. York plans to travel to Montreal for the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, an umbrella group for scholars from the United States and Canada. There, as a chairman of the Pagan Studies Group, he will help oversee three panel discussions, and present his own academic paper, “Idolatry, Ecology and the Sacred as Tangible.”

In both guises, as an individual practitioner and a credentialed expert, Mr. York embodies the increasing mainstream acceptance of Pagan religion. From academia to the military, in the person of chaplains and professors, through successful litigation and online networking, Paganism has done much in the last generation to overcome its perception as either Satanism or silliness.

“Academically, it’s much more open and accepted and respected,” said Mr. York, 70, who retired five years ago from the faculty of Bath Spa University in England. “And on a more personal level, we don’t proselytize or anything like that, but most of my friends know that I’m Pagan and most of them are not, and we can discuss it. They understand that there is a Pagan spirituality, and the misconceptions about it have diminished.”

Because the federal census does not ask about religious affiliation, and because ridicule or discrimination tended to keep Pagans closeted in the past, statistics on the number of adherents in the United States are imprecise and probably too low. Still, the recent growth is evident in surveys done in 1990 and 2001 by the City University of New York.

Over the course of those 11 years, the survey went from tabulating 8,000 Wiccans nationally — that branch of Paganism was the only one to turn up — to 134,000 Wiccans, 33,000 Druids and 140,000 Pagans. (Others identify as Heathens.) The sociologist Helen A. Berger, who is doing research on Pagan demography, said she believed that a more accurate current number would fall between 500,000 and one million.

Certainly, there is nothing new about Paganism per se. From Halloween to May Day to Yuletide, said Prof. Diana L. Eck of the Harvard Divinity School, “there’s a way in which all of us, especially in the Christian tradition, follow a religious calendar that is pegged to ancient Pagan festivals.”

But in the grand scheme of the Western world, polytheism was seen as being superseded by monotheism and faith itself by science, leaving Paganism as some kind of atavistic orphan of history. The fact that its practitioners lacked any formal denominational structure added to the religion’s relative invisibility, except as the object of fears or the butt of jokes.

In several ways, though, Paganism was waiting for modernity to catch up with it. The emphasis on the worship of nature in virtually all variations of Pagan faith, and the embrace of a female divinity in many, situated the religion to mesh with the environmental and feminist movements that swept through the United States in the 1970s.

In the 1970s, Wiccan groups began seeking and obtaining tax-exempt status from federal and state authorities, said the Rev. Selena Fox, the founder and spiritual leader of an early, influential Wicca church, Circle Sanctuary in Barneveld, Wis. By the decade’s end, Wicca was included in the handbook for military chaplains and had been written about in such popular books as “Drawing Down the Moon,” (Penguin, 2006), by Margot Adler.

Since then, Wiccans have served as chaplains in prisons and hospices, as well as in the armed forces. Just this week, Ms. Fox supplied the invocation for the daily session of the Wisconsin State Assembly. And, of course, the popular culture of the Harry Potter books, the television series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and the current zombie vogue have defanged Pagan religion for a mass teenage audience.

Nothing did more to secure Paganism’s place in the religious mainstream, though, than a highly serious, indeed somber, court battle. Brought by Americans United for Separation of Church and State on behalf of Circle Sanctuary and several widows, the decade-long litigation sought permission from the federal Department of Veterans Affairs to have the gravestones of deceased Wiccan soldiers marked with the symbol of the pentacle.

Since winning that right as part of an out-of-court settlement two years ago, Wicca followers have marked more than a dozen military graves with the five-pointed star.

“This got us the most widespread support and had the most wide-ranging import,” Ms. Fox said. “Our symbol was literally being carved in stone and taking its place alongside the symbols of other religions. Our religion was at last getting equal treatment. It was one of those crossroads moments.”