I’m not much of a quantitative social scientist. I’ve attended the lectures, read the ever-so-eager-to-please textbooks (“Statistics really isn’t that boring! Honestly! It’s really rather fun! And ever so useful!”)… I even worked as a research assistant at a quantitative market research firm for six months. But it’s not really something that interests me – quant is very good at measuring a/s/l and drawing the sorts of connections that policy-makers and bureaucrats are interested in: but if you want a nuanced idea of what particular people actually think and feel, a questionnaire is not a particularly helpful tool. And when it comes to a group like the Pagan community, who seem to have a rabid dislike for anything so banal, standardized and modern as form-filling and scales-of-one-to-ten, quantitative research into Paganism is challenging, to say the least.
However, getting hard data on the general demographics of our various traditions is, I think, really important. It’s because, like it or not, ours is world where stats count for something. If it turns out, as some people are suggesting, that there are as many as 280,000 pagans camping out in our green and pleasant land, then this has implications. Paganism would officially be the sixth largest faith community, ahead of Judaism and Buddhism. Naturally this assumes that the Jewish and Buddhist communities will not have increased significantly, but even if we assume some small increase, neither is likely to oust Paganism from its prospective position.
Now, what might this mean? Such an increase in numbers is certainly very interesting for social scientists like myself – besides, it gives me a nice, round statistic to put in the introductions of funding applications. Also, if the Pagan-DASH campaign has proven successful and we get a larger number of Pagans responding, then it will go some way to solving the problem of a lack of reliable figures for the size of the Pagan movement; something that has limited the reliability of previous quantitative surveys. It also makes Pagan groups and individuals far more likely to gain government funding and positive legal treatment if we are seen to be a significant slice of the electorate.
But I think the socio-cultural implications are much more significant. Given the amount of air-time and attention that is paid to Judaism, if we’re officially more numerous then the kind of coverage we recieved by the BBC last Samhain will possibly become far more frequent – Emma Restall-Orr as a regular contributor to Thought for the Day perhaps?
So what, you might say. Well, in my view, the fact that Paganism will be likely to become a louder chorus within the public sphere can only be a good thing. Sure, this sort of idiocy will become more common in the short term, but over time the bile that the tabloids spew about us will become less and less acceptable or accepted. And with respect, comes influence. I personally believe strongly that Paganism has something important to contribute to fresh conceptions of British identity, heritage and pluralism, but in order for us to engage in those debates, we need to be accepted as the reasonable people we are by the general public. And finally, perhaps most importantly, it will make it ever easier for seekers to discover our traditions for themselves.