Britain recognized Druidry, an ancient belief that worships deities that take different forms in nature, as a religion for the first time and gave it charitable status on Saturday.
“There is a sufficient belief in a supreme being or entity to constitute a religion for the purposes of charity law,” declared the Charity Commission for England and Wales in response to the Druid Network’s application.
The decision will give the neo-pagan religion, known for its cloaked worshippers at Stonehenge (above, in 1999) and other sites, tax advantages and is expected to lead to broader acceptance.
“This has been a long hard struggle taking over five years to complete,” said the Druid Network, which is based in England, in a statement on its website.
In some ways, Druidry in Britain is catching up to Druids and other neo-pagans in the United States, which already provides tax-exempt status for religious groups, said Marty Laubach, Associate Professor of Sociology at Marshall University.
The British commission noted that Druidry “is animistic and based on a belief that everything has a spiritual dimension.” It also said that the religion recognizes deities within nature and conducts worship ceremonies.
The Druid Network, which has about 350 members, sought charitable status for “the advancement of religion for public benefit and no other purpose,” the commission said in its ruling.
Druidry has no asserted dogma, the network said in its application. It added that members associate their gods with the moon, fertility, rain, love and other forces.
Druids were members of the learned class among ancient Celts, acting as priests, judges and teachers. They performed human and animal sacrifices and worshiped in forests in western Europe, Britain and Ireland.
Neo-pagan groups are growing in the United States, the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey found.
Such groups include Druids and Wiccans, along with voodoo and other belief systems, Laubach said.
“It’s a quintessentially American religion in that it is a highly individualistic religion,” Laubach said of neo-paganism.
Marshall, in Huntington, West Virginia, allows students to miss classes to observe pagan and other religious holidays.
Neo-pagans seek to communicate with spirits, but witchcraft is not Satanic because its believers don’t recognize the Satan of Christianity, Judaism or Islam, Laubach said.
Many people look at Satanic worshippers and neo-pagans “as a bunch of people dancing in the forest” without realizing the distinction, said Douglas E. Cowan, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.
“We often tend to be demonized,” said Laubach, a member of the neo-pagan movement, indicating Britain’s decision is a “form of legitimacy.”
Neo-pagans tend to be sensitive to the environment, with many rituals held outside, said Cowan and Laubach.
“They realize we are part of a living system,” said Cowan.
“There is a huge festival movement,” Laubach added. “The earth is the mother that supports us.”
Britain’s Druid Network says public misconceptions about some of its practices persist.
“While sacrifice is a core notion within most spiritual traditions, within Druidry it is confused by historical accounts of the killing of both human and animal victims,” the network said in its application to the British commission. “No such practice is deemed acceptable within modern Druidry.”
“What is sacrificed within the tradition today,” the application says, “is that which we value most highly in life and hold to with most passion: time, security, certainty, comfort, convenience, ignorance and the like.”
Modern pagans may not be as restrictive on issues such as sex as other religions “but [their] groups evolve social controls,” Cowan said.
“You’ve got people bringing their kids to events,” he said.
Cowan said it’s not clear if the growth of Druidry – which he calls nowhere near as influential as the rapid growth of Christian Pentacostalism and Islam – is the rekindling or reinvention of the faith.
Regardless, Druids in Britain, unlike their North American counterparts, don’t feel as marginalized by mainstream Christianity, he said.
“They have done the most to bridge the gap between Christian and non-Christian groups in Britain,” Cowan said.