Back to the Woods

druids1

The Druids are back.

Some may remember the Druids from half-forgotten Dungeons and Dragons role-playing games, or from the description of them in Julius Caesar’s De Bello Gallico, where they are portrayed as important religious leaders who engaged in and presided over human sacrifices. Recent archeological findings support the literary evidence of human sacrifice, but almost no evidence of actual Druidic beliefs, prayers, or rituals has survived. The religion was suppressed violently by the Romans, and by the time Christianity arrived throughout Gaul and Great Britain, there was not much left.

Druidism — or, rather, the idea of pre-Christian sages with magical knowledge — enjoyed a revival of interest in the late 18th century, connected to movements such as Welsh independence and romanticism, but these drew from contemporary ideas.

The dearth of actual historical Druidism has not stopped small groups from continuing to claim the Druidic heritage. And after a five-year struggle, a small but energetic “neo- Druid” group has forced the British government to recognize its existence as a protected faith. Druidism will now be recognized as a religion under the country’s charity laws, though it seems the new Druids have exchanged the penchant for human sacrifice with a fashionable environmentalism. Druids would still apparently prefer fewer people, just not through burning in human-sized wicker cages. According to the Huffington Post, these Druids “worship natural forces such as thunder and the sun, and spirits they believe arise from places such as mountains and rivers.”

Such recognition means that, like the Church of England or Roman Catholicism, the Druids can receive exemptions from taxes and other benefits from the government. This is the same government that, through enormities such as the misnamed “Equality Act,” has forced Catholic institutions throughout the United Kingdom to stop providing social services or risk losing their Catholic identity.

The recognition of the Druids — officially, the ” Druid Network,” a group of about 350 members — raises interesting issues for the future of the West. In particlar is the question of whether this decision represents a certain historical moment in the history of Western secularism. There are signs it does, and that the recognition of the Druids tells us what we need to know about how the modern secular state sees religion.

This is only the most recent example of the elastic version of religion: the Jedi knights have also been recognized as a faith in the United Kingdom. Even more than modern Druidism, this is a faith wholly invented, something analogous to a cargo cult among science-fiction fans.

Of course, much of this may just be a passing fad, as it was in the 19th century. The real pagans, it is easy to forget, were brutal and barbaric in a way that we now find hard to comprehend. No one should wish to live in pre-Christian Britain; even classical Greece and Rome were comfortable with a level of violence toward the weak, including women and children — not to mention slavery — that we would find abhorrent today. More importantly, religious sentiment was completely different. A pagan world is not one in which we control the gods, as trendy leftists may suppose, but in which we are ever at risk of offending some god for failure to correctly appease him. Moreover, these gods rarely provide a guide to conduct or right behavior — they are inscrutable, and therefore fearsome. That such alternatives are even considered today is a testament to Christianity’s successful extirpation of the truly pagan worldview.

 

As a political matter, the most striking thing about the recognition of Druidism and the more fanciful faiths is that their acceptance poses no threat to the state. This is in sharp contrast with Christianity, which has well-developed positions about the role of government, the sacredness of the human person, and the limits of political authority. It is no coincidence that, beginning with ancient Rome, all secular totalitarian states have considered the Church an enemy. The Church’s internal tradition, therefore, provides resources to protect both individuals and civil society from state overreaching. This is, of course, derived from the Church’s self-understanding that her true end, and those of all believers, is beyond politics.

In contrast, at least right now, the Druids have very little in the way of resources to challenge any kind of state overreaching. Their soi-disant environmentalism fits nicely with current secular “green” priorities, but there is no guarantee it always will. And in that eventuality, there is yet no Druid Aquinas or Pope Gelasius to defend against infringements on personal liberty or religious freedom. Those traditions are likely to remain underdeveloped, since there is no real Druidic tradition that the current epigones can adapt for current circumstances. The Druids, like the Jedi knights, are living still off of the witness of several centuries of Christian martyrs, who in dying for their faith destroyed the claims of the absolutist state. This, however, is not the story the secular state acknowledges.

Accordingly, it is in a secular state’s interest to recognize these faiths. A profusion of smaller sects with little sense of themselves as sources of authority alternative to that of the state dilutes the institutional presence of more established religions and allows the state to act without checks to its authority in the public square. Further, it allows the state to advance a strong form of secularism under an agenda of “tolerance.” Worshipping river spirits becomes no more or less important than wrestling with a two-millennia-old reflection on the separation of church and state, and therefore both can be dismissed in the face of secular state interests, which are often hostile to religious faith.

This critique is therefore more concerned with the state’s treatment of religion, rather than the Druids’ exercise of their faith. The sincerity of those who have found some kind of religious fulfillment in Druidism. Writers like Christopher Dawson have long shown that all people seek the divine, and it is in part the fault of contemporary Christian leaders that so many are driven back to a pre-Christian form of worship. Indeed, as one Druid spokesperson said, their faith is a way for people who have had trouble relating to traditional monotheism or institutional religion to find some level of spiritual meaning in their lives.

That goal is laudable, but we should not misunderstand the benefits to the state of such recognition. Religious freedom should be protected, but the state sometimes has its own reasons for furthering that goal, ones that are not always congruous with those of believers.

A Christian culture, even one as attenuated as that of the United Kingdom, still places priority on the individual and the sacredness of the human conscience to believe freely: thus the Druids can pursue their claims through a lawsuit rather than face the lions in the Colosseum. Would a culture that beseeches non-human spirits — or the secular state — be as solicitous? That example is perhaps already preserved for us in the writings of Caesar and Solzhenitsyn, and it is well we be mindful of its dangers.

Gerald J. Russello

By

Gerald J. Russello is a Fellow of the Chesterton Institute at Seton Hall University and editor of The University Bookman. He is also the editor of the 2013 edition of Christopher Dawson’s Religion and Culture from Catholic University of America Press.

  • Pammie

    Another nail in the coffin of Great Britain’s Christian heritage. Soon enough they will no doubt find out “up close and personal” what they have thrown away with both hands.

    I always find it somewhat amusing that modern westerners who pine away for Druid (read Aztec, Incan et al) ways clearly see themselves as the Sacrificers, instead of the way more likely , sacrificed. They never assume it will be their heads flying through the air to appease an angry god of nature or that it will be the smoke from THEIR burning bodies fouling the air of approving onlookers.

    It must be all those self-esteem lectures from Oprah and her like “wot done it”.

  • Jean

    Pammie, I loved your comment! Still chuckling. It reminded me of the persons I’ve know who believe they have led a previous life…as a princess, a great warrior-king, an emperor or…you get the idea. Not one of them told me they had in that previous life been a serf, a small farmer, castle cook, or the like. As a child after reading “Gone with the Wind” I declared to my sister that I longed to be living in the antebellum south. To which she replied, “Why? Back then you would be the daughter of a ‘poor white trash’ sharecropper.” T’was a salutory, if deflating, response. 🙂

  • Douglas

    Yes, just prior to becoming head of the Anglican church Archbishop Rowan was inducted into Druidism in a one hour ceremony. Here’s the BBC report@ http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_…172918.stm

  • Pammie

    Oh I can’t take credit for the concept. As a small child my Victorian Granny asked me what I wanted when I grew up. “A large house with heaps of maids”, says I. Replying with close to a snort (but not quite) she said, “Darling, considering the way you conduct yourself , you are far more likely to BE a maid, and living in the attic quarters of your big house. Ahhh… the blessing of having such a grandmother have followed me through life. Your sister seems to have been of much the same mindset.

  • MattH

    The group that Rowan Williams was inducted into is not the Druid Network referred to in this article, and has basically nothing to do with it.
    He was inducted into the Welsh Gorsedd of the Bards, which exists to preserve Welsh language and culture. Membership involves either passing a test in the Welsh language, or recognition as having contributed to Welsh culture. It does not proport or intend to be a religion. See http://www.eisteddfod.org.uk/e…php?nID=43
    The Druid Network is completely different, existing to “revive” and practice Celtic/British pre-Christian religion.

  • John

    One can really see the decline and fall of British civilization:

    Two Englishmen convert to Islam. They are then killed yesterday in Pakistan while preparing to fight their own countrymen. Meanwhile, other English are converting to not only a false religion, but what is now a completely fabricated religion created in a pot haze during the 1960s.

  • Mrs. F

    I find that many people who have heard of druids often blame Christianity for obliterating them (and they usually think the Christians were violent about it). They never consider the Romans, who were equally pagan, nor remember that Christianity spread through evangelization (whereas many pagan religions, as well as Islam, spread through violence). It’s all the proof we need that the view of the World is topsy-turvey, when people defend human sacrifice and violence over peace that requires self-control.

    With the increasing push toward everything ‘green’, I’m not surprised that any religion thought to be in harmony with nature has become popular. SOme environmentalists I’ve met identify the earth as Gaia, and themselves as Gaians, worshipping and caring for her.

    When Britain reconizes Cullenism as an official religion, it will truly be curtains for that nation. (If you’ve never heard of this, you haven’t talked to many die-hard Twilight fans, and lucky, lucky you).

  • RObert Dobie

    For a good look at what ancient paganism meant and entailed, I would highly recommend viewing the HBO series “Rome.” Whatever one might think of the gratuitous sex and violence in the series, overall it is dramitically excellent and particular credit has to be given the writers for not romanticizing paganism in any way. They seem to be scupulously faithful to the historical research which confirms what our writer asserts above: that the “real” paganism of antiquity was a cold and cruel religion where respect for the gods and for “nature” was based on raw fear and on that alone. Also, the series shows very well how slaves, women, children and foreigners were basically “non-persons” to the pagan who can then be treated in any way one wished. The neo-paganism (aka “wicca”) that one finds today is basically pure claptap invented whole cloth out of senitmentalized 19th and 20th century secular left-wing shibboleths.

  • Assistant Village Idiot

    Hudson and Landry did the best send-up of invented religions in the 1970’s with their “Frederickism.”

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