No rest for the Wicca

Peter Jensen pities them, George Pell loathes them and Fred Nile curses them. But the neo-Pagans continue to move from strength to strength.

The last census proved nature religions, and primarily Wicca and Paganism, were among the fastest growing in Australia.

And now the Melbourne-based Christian Research Association (CRA) has carried out the first in-depth analysis of the religious group that accounts for more than 24,000 Australians. According to that study, the profile of the modern Australian Pagan is a female Melburnian under the age of 35, Australian-born, living in a de facto relationship, with a university degree. What is harder to analyse is the rising political force of Paganism.

Earlier this year the country's largest nature religion organisation of paid-up members, the Pagan Awareness Network, was granted a licence to fundraise for charitable purposes by the NSW Department of Gaming and Racing. Now it has its sights set on having the Australian Taxation Office classify it as a bona fide deductable gift recipient.

Listed as an incorporated education institution, the network already enjoys tax-free status, although it chooses to pay GST, according to David Garland, a Wicca practitioner and president of the network. The educational status, he says, is based on the network's primary function of instructing the public by dispelling such myths as the religion's links to satanism and its fondness for sexual orgies.

"I've been a Pagan for 15 years," says the 35-year-old former Catholic altar boy. "And I've not seen one orgy yet . . . I think they went out with the Roman Empire."

In fact members are probably too busy lobbying state governments these days to indulge in sexual deviancy.

When the Carr Government introduced changes to the Weapons Prohibition Act in 1999, the network was one of the lobby groups that successfully fought to have religious weapons exempted. The only act in Australia that still outlaws fortune telling and witchcraft is Section 13 of Victoria's Vagrancy Act of 1958. However, the Victorian Government has indicated that it will be repealed.

The fact that Melbourne is home to the majority of self-acknowledged Pagans despite this legislation is one of life's many mysteries, Mr Garland concedes.

The Reverend Philip Hughes, a researcher with the CRA, believes it may be linked to Melbourne's less materialistic ethos. "For many, Wicca involves a protest against the material world, against powerlessness, against the oppression of women, and against repressive attitudes to sexuality. And Wicca can be a protest specifically against Christianity, which is seen as having failed women in particular."