No more mooning about - call for pagans to come out of the shadows

Sydney, Australia - Mark Hepworth is a Gardnerian Wiccan with Greek Reconstructionist beliefs but the Sydney IT worker would like to be counted as a pagan first.

''A lot of other faiths see us as the people that got too much into Harry Potter and decided to call themselves a witch instead of an actual group of people who do have a serious spirituality,'' he says. And it's like other faiths that pagans would like to be treated, at least in a statistical sense.

The Pagan Awareness Network, of which Mr Hepworth is vice-president, is urging its many and diverse faith paths - which include Druidism, Shamanism and Lesbian Feminist Goddess Worship - to nominate paganism as their religious category in this year's census.

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Mr Hepworth hopes the weight of people nominating ''pagan'' as their primary faith, followed by their variant after a dash, will prompt it to be reclassified as an umbrella term by the Australian Bureau of Statistics - the first step in consolidating pagan numbers and gaining wider recognition as a legitimate religious choice.

It's an aspiration supported by past surveys, which show the number of people identifying as pagans is sharply on the rise in Australia.

Almost 16,000 people listed their religion as pagan in the 2006 census - separate to others such as the 8000 who nominated Wiccan and 1000 Druids - up from almost 11,000 pagans in 2001 and 4400 when it first appeared as a religious category in 1996. ''I believe we trounced Scientology for numbers,'' Mr Hepworth says. Anecdotally they found as many as four in every five pagans left the question blank.

Stacey Demarco, a witch and author from the northern beaches, says she is "obviously very much out of the broom closet" but many pagans weren't. The fear of outing themselves affects how they treat the optional religion question on their census form.

An Australian Human Rights Commission report released this year found many pagans felt restricted in celebrating their faith openly.

Ms Demarco says although ''there's 2000 years of stigma attached to the word witch'' if more people truthfully listed their faith on their census form, it would help others realise just how widely paganism was practised.

The bureau's assistant director of standards and classification, Philip Mitchell, says no religion can gain legitimacy through the data, but classifications are reviewed after each census.