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

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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.

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