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:
- In your personal experience, has anyone of Christian belief or other religion told you your belief system was bad?
- How did you discover Druidry? Was it easy to find information on it?
- 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?
- Why is Druidism your chosen faith? What do you like the most about this belief system?
- 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?
I 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.
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.