Naturalistic Druidry: A Retrospective, by WhiteHorse

Can we learn from past mistakes, in order to build a better future?

Yesterday’s article, entitled “What Do Druid Naturalists Do?”, explored the activities of the recently-defunct Druidic Order of Naturlists (DON).  This follow-up article draws insight from DON’s twilight, in order to build a better community for the future.

Sadly, since I wrote the original article about 3 years ago, the Druidic Order of Naturalists is no longer active.  However I would like to share some ‘lessons’ that I learnt from our ‘experiment’ with a naturalistic pagan group in the United Kingdom.

I still believe naturalistic paganism can be as coherent and viable as any form of  ‘religious’ or theistic paganism.  However to be an effective movement the naturalistic pagan must focus on the positive. The group has to be more than a platform for criticizing religious beliefs, pagan or otherwise.  It is easy for the naturalist to say what she doesn’t believe in without knowing what they are ‘for’ and what contribution they can make to wider paganism/society. Also while some naturalists have a deep personal disillusionment with religion, you should not let this become the main motivation driving the group.

 Relations with other Pagans

In my opinion, our particular ‘experiment’ with naturalistic paganism did not sit easily within the wider pagan (druid) community in the U.K. We were met with bemusement from many druids but a negative reaction from only a small minority.  At the time it was a breath of fresh air because someone needed to start an unprejudiced debate about druidry and its relationship with modern science. The debate we started also tested the limits of the supposed tolerance and acceptance for different viewpoints within the community.  It was very heartening that some religious pagans supported us and defended our right to a place in the druid community even if they could not agree with us.

I know that some people who previously described themselves as atheist, agnostic or humanist, found us to be a way into paganism. They saw in us something that resonated with them without appearing unreasonable. We were not afraid to tackle the intellectual problems of being pagan in the modern world.  When it came to ideas we were also very creative.   That said, while our group had great discussions amongst ourselves, we were often too focused on the intellectual, and this put some people off. We also talked about the value of the non-rational aesthetic but didn’t get around to celebrating it enough.

1.  Be polite

Unfortunately, druidic naturalism also alienated some former friends in the wider pagan community.  This was because of the manner in which some over-enthusiastic people initiated debates. Beware! Most pagans join groups (online or in person) to meet those who are like minded. They don’t expect to be/want to be challenged about their beliefs in a pagan context.  Politeness requires that despite having something to say, you need to be invited to debate/critique. Above all, don’t preach. Such bad manners may be considered arrogant and intolerant.

2.  Emphasize commonalities

When engaging with other pagans the naturalist should proceed cautiously and with humility.  You should emphasize what all pagans have in common: a spirituality or worldview inspired by nature and the ancestors’ stories. Naturalists should be able to value religious paganism as providing at least a life-enhancing system of symbols and values that helps people express their deep connection with nature, their creative imagination and a particular identity or cultural history. And of course all pagans should love nature and want to  protect their environment.

3.  Don’t proselytize

Remember there is no urgent need to convince our fellow pagans of the greater rightness of naturalistic paganism and to show them the alleged error of their ways.  To try to do so is proselytism. Don’t do it. We should not conflate the irrational with the non-rational and exaggerate the supposed malign consequences of ‘magical thinking’ within the pagan community – such concerns are often misplaced:  after all its not religious pagans who have the guns or bombs, nor are they likely to run the government.   Even without naturalistic pagans trying to ‘keep it real’, general pagan values provide some immunity against magical thinking getting out of hand: very kooky stuff is tolerated but most of pagans value personal freedom and hate dogma.  It would be a bizarre irony if naturalistic paganism itself became seen as ‘dogmatic’ with regard to fellow pagans. Druidry extols the bardic arts – and we should follow the bards’ methods.  They knew that sometimes the best way to expose foolishness in high places is not directly but by subtle arts and wicked satire.

4.  Appreciate ‘private truth’

It also can’t be the purpose of naturalistic pagans to insist religious pagans follow a scientific method because they seem to be making claims about reality. This is too harsh a demand and fails to understand the nature of these truth ‘claims’. The basic datum of the pagan is neither a religious text or empirical experiment, but personal experience, intuition and gnosis.    The naturalistic pagan needs to appreciate the value of a pagan’s ‘private truth’, while naturalism deals in ‘public truths’ that require proper objective validation. Paganism is not based on propositions, theories and concepts, so naturalistic paganism cannot be an academic exercise that tries to present a ‘de-mythologized’ version of traditional paganism.

Relation to ritual

Naturalistic paganism needs to translate from the internet forum, and from being a debating society to personal action or in other words, just living it. And this means not ‘over-thinking’.

1.  Don’t over-think it

Either you feel your paganism viscerally – in your “heart and guts” when up close and personal with nature –  or you don’t get it at all. The naturalistic pagan who finds most other paganisms an embarrassment or an affront to  her rationality needs to question if they really want to be  ‘pagan’ at all.  Naturalistic paganism also can’t work simply as a half way house, a stopping point on the road out of paganism. It must be about more than pagan folk losing their religion.

2.  Agree on a ritual approach

One further point about naturalistic paganism and rituals:  the Druidic Order of Naturalists  tried to develop its own ‘naturalistic’ rituals, but this proved a lot more difficult than expected. There was disagreement over whether ‘religious’ terminology should ever be used and even the ‘point’ of ritual. The naturalist pagan certainly has to find compelling, new reasons for doing collective ritual. Crossing our fingers behind our backs and carrying on with rites from habit is an empty gesture.  It turns out we have to ‘believe’ in the ritual after all.  If you try to replace ‘supernatural’ terminology it is hard to build a consensus on what the alternative should be, and the attempt can look like parody.  But the assumption that all traditional terminology must change is also a form of wooden literalism.  To be a pagan naturalist, the naturalist has to learn to appreciate the value of the aesthetic, symbols and the ‘mytho-poetic’ in ritual. Don’t fall for the false dichotomy that insists the mythological is either all objectively true OR false (and hence worthless).

3.  Expect the sublime

If you want your collective ritual to be more than amateur dramatics you must retain the expectancy of something sublime happening to you.  You must have, yes, ‘faith’ in the power of your collective intent, even if you wish to understand it as some kind of placebo effect. It is efficacious, but do we always need to know how it works and why?  No. Sometimes we need to suspend the rational analysis, just listen and feel and ‘be’.

In my opinion, to be genuinely naturalistic and truly pagan you need to hold your beliefs lightly, and your doubts lightly too.

The author

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White Horse:  Has a day job working for an insurance company and lives with his wife and children in South East Wales. His interests include: law and public policy, environmental issues, ancient and early medieval history, and the Western Mystery Tradition.
White Horse blogs at Silurian Grove.

6 Comments on “Naturalistic Druidry: A Retrospective, by WhiteHorse

  1. I’m stvltvs from the erstwhile Caer Abred forum.

    This seems to assume the goal of naturalistic pagans is to make a home within the greater pagan community. I suppose being a pariah isn’t fun, but my personal goals don’t relate to the pagan community at all.

    I seek a way of life that is mindful of my relationship with the cosmos, that nurtures my powers of rationality in pursuit of truth, and that fulfills my arational desires (e.g. for justice, love, and beauty).

    Whether or not the pagan community is part of that way of life is an open question for me, especially given the level of woo that it nurtures. Fuzzy thinking has very real detrimental effects in the world that I want no part of if I can help it. My feelings about paganism are very mixed. The only reason i got involved is because it seemed to be the only religion that had a major focus on environmental issues, but it comes with a lot of baggage that I’d rather not take on. If that means being outside of the larger pagan community, so be it.

  2. There were some interesting threads and I enjoyed discussing ideas there. However, the rational mind tends to over-ride the experiential in these sort of forums and rationality, IMO, cannot explain everything that may happen to you at this time in our history. It tended to rely on proven empirical evidence and the experiential, to my knowledge anyway, has not availed itself yet to being completely empirical.

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