A High School Student Asks About Druidism

Last week I was surprised and delighted to get an email from a high school student who is curious about Druidism. In particular, for a school project, she wanted to know about the relationship between Christianity and Druidism, and what factors led to the rise of one at the expense of the other. She sent me a list of questions and asked whether I might be able to answer them for her.

The questions were:

  1. In your personal experience, has anyone of Christian belief or other religion told you your belief system was bad?
  2. How did you discover Druidry? Was it easy to find information on it?
  3. In your opinion, do you think Druidism being replaced by Christianity so many centuries ago had to do with the religion itself? Or was it caused by other factors?
  4. Why is Druidism your chosen faith? What do you like the most about this belief system?
  5. And finally, what is your opinion of Christianity? Do you personally think it’s a good religion? If not, what weaknesses within the faith can you point out?

ire24I found something remarkable about her questions. Some of them were good, solid, and straightforward — like (2) or (4). These were the sort of questions that might be used to spur discussion on an interfaith forum. But others were more daring — like (3) and (5). These are questions that few people ask, because they go beyond simply “asking about Druidism” and get into the thornier area of relationships between religions. They are perfectly natural questions, and they deserve answers; but they’re also dangerous and insightful, because they skirt close to the questions at the heart of religion itself: why do some religions rise, and others fall? Is there such a thing as a true religion — and if so, could it be pushed off the world’s stage by a false one? If Druidism is a true religion, how come Christianity replaced it? And how do you, as a Druid, feel about that?

So I was delighted to answer her questions; and she graciously agreed to let me turn our little dialogue into a blog post.

In your personal experience, has anyone of Christian belief or other religion told you your belief system was bad?

Not in my personal experience while I have been a Druid. I have only been a Druid for about nine months, so that’s not much time yet. Before I was a Druid, I was variously a Zen Buddhist and an agnostic, and I grew up in the southeastern United States, an area not known for its open-mindedness. During that time, I did indeed experience some prejudice in that regard. You can read more about it in my blog post ” Don’t You Go to Church?” You might also be interested to read some of the comments other Pagans wrote on that blog post. Prejudice against Druids and other Pagans is certainly not unknown!

How did you discover Druidry? Was it easy to find information on it?

I had heard of Druidry many years before — probably first in high school or college — but didn’t know much about it, or Paganism for that matter, until last spring. At that time I was wavering back and forth between agnosticism and Zen Buddhism, but coming to realize that neither belief system was really going to be satisfactory for me or my family. Then, while browsing the New Age section of the bookstore, I happened to see the “Druidry Handbook” by John Michael Greer, and I skimmed it. I was amazed at how the principles and ideals and rituals of Druidism fit so well with my own interests and predispositions. I bought the book and decided to become a Druid almost immediately.

The web has been extremely helpful in finding out about Druidism, but my biggest blessing has been my friendship with my mentor, Ellen Evert Hopman. She is a Druid who lives a few miles away; I found her on the web and sought her out for guidance on this path. She is an Elder of Druidism who’s been doing it for 25 years, so she has been a wonderful resource for me and my family.

In your opinion, do you think Druidism being replaced by Christianity so many centuries ago had to do with the religion itself? Or was it caused by other factors?

In my opinion, the answer can be boiled down to a single sentence: Christianity was backed by the armies of the Roman Empire, and Druidism wasn’t. The rest is details…

I’m not a historian, but here’s what I’ve picked up from my reading (and anyone who knows better, please do correct me!):

First, it’s important to remember that the only people who left records of the times were Christians, and most of them were writing hundreds of years after the events they were describing. As you can imagine, their accounts may be inaccurate and/or biased against Druidism, so we can’t be sure that what they wrote is true. Nevertheless, here’s my understanding.

1. Lands that were originally Druidic were conquered by the Roman Empire while the Empire was not Christian. At the time the Druid lands were conquered, the people of the Roman Empire believed in the Roman gods. The people in the Druidic lands had always believed in many, many gods, and they probably started worshipping the Roman gods as well as their original Druidic gods, and mixing them together.

2. Then, between about 100 and 200 AD, the Roman Empire became Christian. Now, why this happened is open to argument. Some people will tell you that it was because the old gods were “tired” or that belief in them was dying, and folks were hungry for something new to believe in. However, my own belief is that Christianity offered a way for people to sort of challenge the authority of the Empire.

At that time, many of the Emperors were declared to be gods. If you didn’t like the Empire or the Emperor, you could become Christian, and thereby challenge the Emperor’s divinity. This is why, in the beginning, the Empire tried to crush Christianity. However, this naturally only made Christians more steadfast. Eventually the Empire realized that it could simply adopt Christianity and claim that God had decided that the Emperor would rule; so that, even though the Emperor could no longer BE a god, he could still claim to be God’s Chosen. So the Empire became Christian to strengthen its governmental power and to end the uprising of the Christians.

For many hundreds of years afterwards, it was illegal to be worship the old gods, and terrible punishments were given to those who would not convert to Christianity. The priesthood of the Druids was systematically destroyed by the Roman Empire, because they were a direct threat to Roman power. Once the Empire conquered Druid lands, there was no organized center left to the Druidic religion.

3. The Roman Empire was the center of learning and wealth in Europe. Many nations outside the Empire decided to convert to Christianity so that they could be on better terms with the Empire.

4. After the Empire fell, the nations that arose from its ashes continued to be Christian (because they were used to it by then), and they carried Christianity with them wherever their armies went.

Why is Druidism your chosen faith? What do you like the most about this belief system?

I like a lot of things about it, but what I like most is the connection with nature that it offers. For Druids (and for most Pagans), the natural world is sacred and holy. Going for a walk in the woods is just like walking into a church. The changing of the seasons and the cycles of nature are bound up with the cycles of our hearts.

This is not to say, of course, that Christians cannot find a close connection with nature. But it certainly isn’t a requirement of Christianity. It’s my belief that our environmental crisis would not have happened if more people were Pagan.

And finally, what is your opinion of Christianity? Do you personally think it’s a good religion? If not, what weaknesses within the faith can you point out?

Well, I guess I pointed out a weakness in my last answer…

I think that all popular religions offer something of value to their believers. Christianity, when faithfully practiced, brings great joy and a call to service (helping the poor and needy), which are wonderful and valuable things. Unfortunately, I think there are many people who do not faithfully practice it; their primary god is Money, though they’d never admit it; and they just go to church Sundays and pay lip service.

And I think this points to a weakness in Christianity, and in many other faiths as well: people say they believe them, but it takes considerable effort to really believe and to really do what’s required. Personally, I think the fault here lies with the religion, not with the people. I think this is because Christianity (and similar religions like Islam) are counterintuitive. By that I mean that they don’t really match up well with what we instinctively believe, or what we know in our hearts, or the way we naturally think. The TRUE religion should be so easy to follow, so second-nature, that it would be hard not to follow it. Am I making sense?

I addressed this point a lot more in my post Children in Paganism, in which I point out that children find it a lot harder to learn Christianity and other monotheistic religions than they do paganism. I think what I’m trying to say is explained better there.

And Gratitude
I don’t know whether I spoke for all Druids in my answers above. But I bet I speak for us all when I say I’m very glad to have had the chance to answer such daring and intelligent questions, and even more glad to see that religious tolerance has progressed enough in the West that a high-school student can openly study modern Paganism for a class project. In my high school, just fifteen years ago, faculty eyebrows would have been raised, and the student would have been the target of teasing and immature preaching. And fifteen years before that, it was much worse. I and my children — and the high school student who sent me these questions — owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the Pagan pioneers of the last fifty years.

Comments

  1. Excellent reply. I, too, live in the southeast and, in all honesty, don’t share the fullness of my belief as it becomes difficult to overcome the preconceived ideas about Pagans. I walk a blended path in which I accept and follow the teachings of Yeshua, but honor the old ways of Goddess, ritual and nature. How wonderful that this young student can tackle this subject with intelligence!

  2. Well answered!

    (from yet another Southeasterner…)

  3. Good post! Good answers!

    If information on Druidry had been easier to find when I was in high school, I would have definitely become a Druid. Lack of information frustrated me a great deal back then.

    This was twelve years ago, also in the Southeast, but I was already Mormon, so it wasn;t like I was going to get more flak than I was already getting… 😉

  4. WEll done Jeff and well done to the student that asked the questions. I hope it spurs more genuine interest and questioning about spirituality and alternative thinking. (hopefully one day it won’t be so alternative)

    I was mormon too in the south during the early 90’s and often was lumped into the catagory that included satan worshippers(including all pagans cause if you didn’t worship god, satan was your only other choice), hippies and basically anyone that wasn’t “chrisitian” in their eyes.
    I remember on a bus ride home a student accused me of witchcraft when he heard I was mormon and jumped out of the back of the bus while it was moving – slowly of course. That brought on a week of questioning from school officials and parents. Intresting times.
    I think it allowed me to devlop a sympathy and understanding for other religions not normally given the spotlight so to say, and an open mind to how people relate to the world thru religious glasses.

  5. Jeff Lilly says:

    Rev. Cindi, it’s such a shame you can’t be as open as you’d like to be about your practice.

    I haven’t lived in the south for eleven years, but things were slowly beginning to change for the better even before I left. And not everywhere in the South is the same: certainly in Chapel Hill, where I lived for the last five years I was in the South, things were much different from the way they had been 60 miles down the road in Greensboro. But there is clearly still a very, very long way to go…

    The student who wrote to me lives in Canada.

  6. Re:

    “Christianity (and similar religions like Islam) are counterintuitive. By that I mean that they don’t really match up well with what we instinctively believe, or what we know in our hearts, or the way we naturally think. The TRUE religion should be so easy to follow, so second-nature, that it would be hard not to follow it.” —

    I don’t see how the second sentence necessarily follows from the first: many true things, after all, simply don’t agree with “the way we naturally think.”

    Consider higher mathematics or quantum physics, for instance. The difficulty of following a calculus course or an experiment in quantum physics does not guarantee their falsehood.
    (What would we think if a math or science student — or teacher — announced in class one day that “This difficult material doesn’t really match up well with what I instinctively believe, with the way we naturally think. The fact that it is difficult shows that it is untrue: TRUE math and science would be so easy, so second-nature, that it would be hard NOT to get them right!”?)

  7. Jeff Lilly says:

    Kate — because religion is not science. 🙂

    Religion, I believe, concerns the connection between our spirits/hearts/intuition and the Eternal. I think it would be very very strange if the Eternal turned out to be very unintuitive, or alien to our spirits/hearts. I think the eternal Spirit and our own hearts/spirits are very much the same in kind, if not in fact; and so they really ought to match up.

    As for mathematics, higher or lower: I don’t agree that it’s not intuitive. It’s entirely the product of human reason and intuition. A difficult proof can still be intuitive, once you work your way through it.

  8. I don’t see how the differences between scientific truths and other truths would necessarily exclude either kind from containing major strangenesses: things that seem alien (as you excellently put it) until and unless you’ve “done the homework” that starts to make them understandable.

    Re:

    “I think it would be very very strange if the Eternal turned out to be very unintuitive, or alien to our spirits/hearts.”

    “Very, very strange” does not equal impossible … and I wouldn’t find it strange at all, if the Eternal turned out not to match our notions about the Eternal. (Analogy: we form part of this planet, yet events on this planet frequently surprise us: often in major ways. If this little planet can surprise parts of itself [us], then certainly the universe — or whatever underlies the universe — can have big surprises for us too)

    Of course, whatever either you or I think about reality inevitably differs from that reality itself. Given that, a reality that turns out to challenge at least some of our core presuppositions about it would actually seem more likely than a reality which never, ever challenged our core presuppositions about reality.

  9. Jeff Lilly says:

    Kate, Einstein agrees with you: he said once that “The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible”. However, I’m going to go out on a limb and disagree with both of you. 🙂

    First, I want to make clear the distinction between intuition and understanding. A physicist may, after many years of study, find quantum physics comprehensible, but it still remains unintuitive. This is because it breaks the most fundamental laws of human thought: cats can be both alive and dead, particles can be in more than one “place” at once, etc. etc. There is a stratum of human intuition, common to adults and children, that likes to have clearly-differentiated objects in the world, with clearly defined properties, interacting in clearly defined ways — like the balls on a billiard table. This is the realm of mathematics; and it is also the realm of Story. I think it is also the realm of Spirit. It is NOT the physical world, which is a much messier thing.

    You mention that this little planet has a lot of surprises on it. It’s certainly true that our minds have had trouble with it. But our bodies are perfectly adapted to it, in a million tiny ways. There isn’t much on this planet that will surprise the human body, or prevent it from performing its function (reproducing). Sure, there are some dangerous animals, and some poisons, and the occasional natural disaster; but considering all the millions of plants and animals and microbes out there that would love to make us into lunch, I think our bodies do very well.

    I’m of the opinion that our minds are similarly well adapted for the realm of Spirit. It’s the same kind of thing, and operates under the same set of laws. This is very much my personal experience, in any case.

  10. Thanks, Jeff, for explaining how it seems to you. Of course, you and I could *both* have it wrong: I wouldn’t rule out the distinct possibility that some minds “fit” (and some minds don’t “fit”) the realm of spirit/the realm of mathematics/the realm of story.

    I say this partly because I have lived with & worked with at least a few apparently normal folks (no known psychological/neurological disorders, etc.) who just didn’t/don’t seem “adapted to” the realm[s] of math/story/spirit.

    Cases in point:

    /a/ seeming case of non-adaptation to the realm of math —
    a first-grade teacher (my own first-grade teacher, in fact), at a well-regarded private school, in all seriousness informed her students that addition (e.g., counting money) always yields different answers depending on whether you start counting from the highest value downwards, from the lowest value upwards, or in random sequence.

    /b/ seeming case of non-adaptation to the realm of story (or at least to story-sequence: cause-and-effect) — a prominent education-textbook author/workshop leader, personally known to me, who has stated in print and during her workshops that a historical event affecting her specialty happened because of another event which occurred about 800 – 900 years *later* than the event in question (rather as if somebody tried to claim that the Druids got started because of Martin Luther). When questioned on this (by me and by other readers/workshop attendees of hers), she blithely remarks that she doesn’t understand why anyone would regard the dates as a problem here: “this is just a case where the cause happened to accidentally get started after the event instead of before it, so I don’t see why people would have any trouble accepting that simple fact.”

    /c/ seeming case of non-adaptation to the realm of spirit — when one relative of mine showed up for her religion’s teen-age rite of passage (conducted as part of communal worship, and after training in/regular attendance at communal worship ), she asked in genuine and annoyed wonder: “Why are there people here who aren’t our family and friends? Obviously it’s not THEIR ceremony [indicating congregants well past their teens] so why would they even come?” (rather as if a Catholic kid, after training for Confirmation, showed up on the big day and wondered aloud why anyone else but his/her own family and friends had even bothered coming to Mass.)
    It quickly turned out that, somehow, despite taking/passing the standard training (which included attending ceremonies of the type she would go through), she had interpreted the coming event as a sort of religioned-up “private affair” which the congregation/community had nothing to do with. (To use a secular analogy: suppose that a student assigned to read that day’s announcements over the school loudspeaker believed that nothing else would happen in school on that day.)

    To my mind, getting as far as an “initiation rite” type of ceremony (without also “getting” that the community has something to do with it!), seems quite likely as “mal-adapted to spirit” as my first-grade teacher’s mind-set about addition seems “mal-adapted to simple math”: not just in terms of degree (like some people having a harder time than others with trigonometry) but in terms of something more substantial (as if someone who had gotten all the way up to the trigonometry final had never actually grasped that 1+2 and 2+1 both add to 3).

  11. Jeff Lilly says:

    Kate, you’ve definitely made me put my thinking cap on, and I thank you for that!

    I think I’m going to back down on the idea that math is intuitive — at least, not for everyone. It certainly seems to be the case that some folks have a lot of trouble with it; and after reading your example (a) (which really was extraordinary) other examples came to mind in my own experience.

    However, I’m not backing down on story/spirit, and I’m also going to suggest that certain underpinnings of mathematics — such as the countability of discrete objects, object permanence, simple relations between objects — are (a) universally intuitive, (b) fundamental to mathematics, and (b) literally false in the physical world. Everyone knows a chair is a chair, the chair is not the floor, and if you look away for a second the chair will still be there. These facts are essential if you want to start counting chairs. But these statements can’t even be satisfactorily defined in quantum mechanics — the edges of objects fade into each other, bits of the chair are always popping in and out of existence, and the category of things called “chair” is itself fuzzy.

    As for the intuitiveness of the realm of spirit, I’m going to point you over to this article: Paganism, Monotheism, and the Architecture of the Mind. There, I try to argue that polytheistic religions are more intuitive than monotheistic ones, and I give examples of some intuitive religious ideas — specifically, the role of similarity in magic and ritual, and the multiplicity of entities and relations in polytheistic religions. These ideas are so very fundamental and intuitive that most people don’t even notice them; and I wouldn’t have noticed them myself if I hadn’t seen them reflected in the architecture of language. The idea of, e.g., similarity is much more fundamental than the faux pas you mention in example (c). It’s part of our mental architecture; language and reason would be impossible without it.

    I find your example (b) absolutely fascinating. It really shows that the ideas of “cause-effect” is quite divorced from the sense of “past-present-future”. Did you know that a vast number of languages in the world have no tense system (past/present/future), but only an aspectual system (finished/not-finished)? (English has both.) I suspect that past-present-future is not nearly as central to Story as cause-effect is.

  12. I won’t ask you to “back down” on regarding story/spirit/polytheism as intuitive. (And, yes, I know about languages that have aspect and not tense!) However, I know quite a few folks (apparently of adequate intelligence — they hold jobs, and so forth) who seem not to grok “cause->effect” either (with or without time’s direction playing a role). Don’t ask me how they manage to drive cars and hold jobs and so forth: but, to them, an event happens … and then another event happens … and then another event happens: all independently, with no possible inter-connections among Event 1, Event 2, Event 3, etc. (e.g.: “The cops towed my car again — yes, I did park in a ‘no-parking’ zone, now that you ask: but what does that have to do with it?” or “Honey, I know I sent you to the corner store with $10 for something that it turns out costs $15, but that does NOT excuse your coming home without buying it! Yes, I KNOW you had only $10 with you, but what on Earth does THAT have to do with anything?”)

    I agree that certain “hard-object” perceptions
    (the “chair is a chair / look away, it’s still there” variety)
    /1/ do not apply at the sub-atomic level,
    yet /2/ appear universally (at least after infancy) to a degree that makes them quite likely “hard-wired.”
    Presumably, mobile life-forms on Earth’s surface — if they lacked these built-in “default settings” — wouldn’t survive nearly long enough to reproduce!

    I’ve read all your blog-entries (including the one you suggested I study), and have to say that they leave me interested but unconvinced. Just as we have hard-wired yet false-to-fact preconceptions about the objects we bump into every day, we may just as likely have hard-wired — yet false — preconceptions about things or phenomena less tangible.
    However, in all fairness I will let you know that I never “bought into” monotheism even though I grew up in a culture or sub-culture which assumes that “real people” just naturally buy into either monotheism or atheism the instant they hear about these. (Still, I never “bought into” paganism despite having pagan friends — at least some of whom similarly assume that people will, or ought to, just naturally “buy into” paganism as soon as they hear about it. On at least some occasions, pagans’ disgruntlement at hearing that I didn’t know myself to share their mental predisposition towards paganism equaled — or exceeded — monotheists’ disgruntlement at hearing that I didn’t know myself to share their mental predisposition towards monotheism.)

    To use your frequent analogy of religion-as-language: a language could exist (and might even prove very easy to learn) which ideally and completely fitted/described natural and common habits of mind — states and structures that regularly occur within our skulls. However, that very “goodness of fit” with what goes on within our skulls would not guarantee a similar “goodness of fit” with all that goes on outside our skulls.

    In fact, to the degree that the universe-as-a-whole is non-identical with common-features-of-_Homo_sapiens-neurology, “goodness of fit” with _Homo_sapiens_ neurology would practically guarantee “badness of fit” with much, much else that a _Homo_sapiens_ nevertheless has to deal with. (Bizarre example: If some bizarre quirk of our neurology’s evolution had left us feeling it natural and easy to perceive all dark-colored organisms as intellectually/spiritually inferior to all light-colored organisms, the mere fact that this “felt intuitively right” to our brain cells — that it “came naturally” and so forth — would not guarantee either the accuracy or the safety of that feeling.)

    As J. B. S. Haldane said: “The universe is not only queerer than we understand, but queerer than we can understand” … and this seems as likely to apply to those phenomena we call “spirit” as to those phenomena recognized by Haldane and other physicists.)

  13. Jeff Lilly says:

    Kate, you’ve read all my blog entries?? Good heavens! That is a serious investment of your time. I am deeply honored; and I can only hope you’ve gotten some return on that investment.

    I think I finally understand your point here — and I apologize for my obtuseness. I have to concede that I can’t think of any logical necessity that our intuitions — no matter how basic — line up with spiritual reality. At the same time, my own intuition is very firm on that point! 🙂 In the past, when my intuition has been this strong, I’ve tended to stumble on a logical underpinning for it later. Perhaps that will be the case this time…

  14. Thanks, Jeff, for getting what I mean! (And I would, indeed, say that I’ve gotten quite a fair return on my own investment of time reading and thinking about your blog.)

    If you do find a logical underpinning for your intuition’s trust that your intuitions on this matter fit reality, I look forward to seeing you share it. (After all, unless some such underpinning appears, someone someday could wonder how much trust to put in even the firmest statements that an intuition makes about the reliability of itself.)

  15. Laura Allen says:

    I’m glad to hear this! I was a freshman in high school when I, by random chance, started learning about the pre-Christian religion of Ireland. By senior year, I was quite happily a follower of the Tuatha de Danann.

    High school students are fairly intelligent when we want them to be. It’s just gaining access to knowledge that can be a pain in the butt!

  16. Thank you for sharing this. (A pagan friend linked me to your blog). I would love to hear more about the fourth question on what you like about Druidry.

  17. Jeff Lilly says:

    Thanks, Mika! You can find answers to your question (what I like about druidry) poking around the site; you might try starting with Faith in Druidism and The Essence of Druidism. In fact, I plan on writing more about this soon… A lot of my blog posts recently have been philosophical and abstract, because my personal life has been topsy-turvy for quite a while, but things are starting to settle down and I’m able to step back and get some perspective.

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