Over at Gods and Radicals, Druid Jonathan Woolley has written a rather excellent essay on the decline of young people in Paganism and specifically Druidry. Go and read the whole thing, it’s long but worth it. Link below:
Read it? Good.
There’s not much I would disagree with in Jonathan’s essay, but I wanted to add some of my own observations as a young-ish (recently turned 30) Pagan myself.
I might start by questioning the initial premise. At Druid Camp, I saw a wide range of ages represented, from the “old guard” in their 60s and beyond through to plenty of people roughly my age or younger, including students and young parents bringing their small children along. In particular, I noticed that the people volunteering to clean the loos or run the cafe were mostly on the younger end of the age range. But that may be an isolated case (it does suggest, however, that in-person community gatherings are still an attractive proposition for the internet Pagan generation).
But, if we assume (and the above notwithstanding I see no reason not to) that there is a decline in young people becoming Druids, why might this be?
Well, let’s take a look at the idea of “the Druid”. What do you think of when you hear the word Druid? Chances are it may be something like the guy on the left here. Old, white, male, in a funny robe. Now, there’s nothing wrong with being any of those things. But it’s not the most appealing image to people today, especially young people whose views and expressions of gender, race and social privilege are more liberal and progressive than this image seems to imply.
Of course, this is a stereotype, but let’s face it, there are some people in the Druid community who seem determined to live up to the stereotype whenever they get in front of an obliging camera or film crew.
There is much more diversity in the modern Druid community than people might think, but we’re not exactly great at coming forward with promoting this fact.
Then there’s the way Druidry is disseminated. The proliferation of books, blogs, YouTube vloggers, websites and the like about Druidry suggest that there is a good amount of interest in Druidry (and in Paganism more widely), but I am hardly surprised that membership in the more structured Druid Orders is falling.
I work as an Information Professional for a large university, and I deal with students and researchers usually in their 20s or so, and the way they approach knowledge is different from how people in their 40s and beyond approach knowledge. Now, I don’t believe there is any such thing as a “digital native”, this is itself a stereotype and one which does not match the academic evidence. But, the knowledge landscape is changing, and open access (and Open Access) to knowledge online is the driving force of this change.
Knowledge exchange is increasingly seen as collaborative and horizontal, rather than pedagogical and vertical.
So, with this in mind, a formal, structured, graded (hierarchical) correspondence course, in paper, by the post, especially one that you’re not allowed to discuss or share freely with non-members, can seem like an oddity at best and a cult at worst.
As well as this, these courses can be pricey, especially if you’re on a low income, or a student budget, or have small kids to feed. I’ve gone into this more in my post on Paying for Paganism, so I won’t recap it all here, but young people are often not in the most financially secure positions in their lives, and if the choice is between chucking a hundred quid or more on a Druid course, or paying the rent, I know what the decision’s going to be.
So people turn online, for free information. And what do they find? In my experience, generally a lot of insularity and sometimes outright hostility to newbies, people who don’t know the intricacies of various Pagan traditions, and “outsiders” more generally. It isn’t appealing, or easy, to become part of a community where you’re not made to feel welcome and offered support.
This is of course not true for all online Pagan/Druid communities, but the ones that are like this tend to shout the loudest. And these groups tend to be less than constructive. Srsly, the number of times I’ve seen the same five conversations going round and round (especially the who is/isn’t a real Pagan controversy) is ridiculous.
Groups like this are not engaging young people precisely because they’re not really engaging at all. They’re echo chambers for a few loud voices to hear their opinions reflected back at them. And those voices are often old, white and male, so reinforcing the image mentioned above. So yeah.
But I don’t think we should be too hard on ourselves, as I said, I saw all-age community being created at Druid Camp, and Pagan festivals, Pride events and the like seem to be growing every year. The Druid Network even got Druidry legally recognised as a religion in the UK. Thousands of people, many of them young people, flock to Stonehenge for the Summer Solstice, and while most of them are perhaps there for a party more than anything else, it still shows the power and “draw” of Druid and Pagan ideas.
And there is some truth to the oft-mentioned idea that people turn to Druidry as they get older, experience more of life, have more free time on their hands, and want to seek something “more”. I’ve come across many people who first encounter Druidry in their 30s, 40s and beyond. Their presence is valuable too.
So when the current generation of young people age, how many of them may look for that “something more” and find it in Druidry? And what new form might that Druidry evolve into?
Something less structured, less hierarchical, and more open-source would be my guess. It may not resemble Druid Orders, but nor do today’s Orders resemble the 18th century Druid Revival lodges, and nor do they resemble the ancient Celtic Druids. But they’re all Druidry.
Membership of organised religion across the board is falling in the UK and beyond. In fact, membership of any organised groups such as volunteering societies, community clubs etc is falling. Is this a sign of some spiritual malaise, or a selfish turning inwards to a narcissistic generation of selfie-obsessed phone drones?
Well, no. I would argue it’s a combination of young people being more time and resource poor than previous generations, and a general distrust of organisations and authority, especially religious authority that has been shown to be rife with corruption.
But I don’t necessarily see the decline of numbers in formal Pagan/Druid groups as an intrinsically bad thing. Pagan ideas are still popular, and may even be seen to have gone mainstream. Environmentalism, gender equality and the ability to be spiritual without obeying the dogmas of a church are generally pretty accepted, especially among younger folks. In terms of creating cultural shifts, we’re winning.
I’d rather there be fewer organised, religious “Pagans” and more small-p “paganism” in social discourse amongst people of all faiths and none. I have my suspicions of organised religions, especially those that seek growth-for-the-sake-of-growth and expansion by converting people, and I would hate to see Paganism or Druidry become evangelical.
I see Druidry not as another “alternative religion” but as an alternative to religion.
Isaac Bonewits, founder of the Druid group ADF, said that Druidry moves “as fast as a speeding oak”. Growth is slow, barely noticeable, and happens in cycles.
We’re doing fine.
*Druid image: “An Archdruid in his judicial habit” from “The Costume of the Original Inhabitants of the British Isles”, S. Meyrick and C. Smith, 1815 (via Wikimedia Commons, CC-0)