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Violence, religion, and the tragedy in Orlando


The sad events on Orlando where at least 50 people were slaughtered by a person impelled by murderous hatred at least reinforced by religious zeal will be used by many people, especially on the political right, as more evidence that Muslim Americans cannot be trusted to be peaceable citizens.  Unmentioned by these same people will be the similar, if smaller scale, killings in Colorado Springs last November by a Christian who said his deeds were in service to his God.

The most militant atheists will argue these killings point to the destructive role of religion in America. Left unmentioned by them will be the millions killed by atheistic regimes in the past century and the important role of men and women of religious faith in some of the greatest achievements of our society. Let us not forget Martin Luther King, Jr. was the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

We Pagans, as people for whom our religion plays an important role, like religious people everywhere, find these crimes in Orlando and Colorado Springs (and many earlier examples, some far worse, going back nearly 2000 years) a time to reflect on religion’s relationship to violence.

Early religious violence

Violence is scarcely unknown in Pagan history.  The Aztecs certainly and the Carthaginians very probably practiced human sacrifice on a large scale. Many Pagan societies did so on a much smaller one.  Within the Western Pagan tradition Iphigenia’s sacrifice has been immortalized in the work of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles.  Though there is debate as to whether human sacrifice ever played a large role in Hellenic culture, it was certainly known of. Significantly, most Pagan societies known to have practiced it eventually abandoned it, based on their own internal development.

Lest followers of Biblical religions feel superior, the story of Jepthah and his daughter should give them pause.  (Judges 11:30-9) Many talk of Abraham and Isaac, few discuss this incident with a different outcome.  While interpretations of this story are many, all the early ones seem to have considered it a clear case of human sacrifice and only argued about what it meant.  That it should have been so widely understood in those terms tells me such practices were not unknown in Israel, especially since Jepthah was a king doing his deity's work. 

In time, among most Pagans and all monotheists, human sacrifice died out as an offering of thanks and was rejected.

However, the relation of religion with violence does not end with a discussion of human sacrifice.  Or even, as with the Aztecs, war to acquire sacrificial offerings.  There are also religious wars between members of different religions, or even of practitioners of what they think is the same religion, but each considers the other heretics.  Here the record of killing is overwhelmingly in the monotheistic direction. It is also the kind of violence the world is experiencing today.

The record starts with the genocide reports in the Old Testament. The Old Testament God is reported as commanding "The people of Samaria must bear their guilt, because they have rebelled against their God. They will fall by the sword; their little ones will be dashed to the ground, their pregnant women ripped open.” (Hosea 13:16)

Later the prophet Samuel says the Lord commanded

“I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. [many generations earlier] Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.” (1 Samuel 15:2-3)  When Saul does not kill quite all of them, their God rejects him as King of Israel. 

The record of killing people with the wrong religion, or practicing the ‘same’ religion incorrectly is continuing among some monotheists to the present day. While I see no point in creating a list, historically the death toll dwarfs what happened in any Pagan society, even the Aztecs. Without considering the death tolls arising from Christian and Muslim violence, and sticking only to deaths explicitly recorded in the Bible as ordered by or caused by God, the total is 2,821,364.

Contemporary violence

For mostly historical reasons, most religious violence today is by those claiming to be Muslims.  But Islam has no monopoly on violence here.  Christianity has spilled plenty of blood in its past and until quite recently in Bosnia. The end of its worst violence did not come as a result of any advances in Christian morality or spiritual understanding. Relative peace arose from mutual exhaustion, when the various factions realized they could never kill all the other side.

True religious tolerance considered as a matter of principle had to wait the coming of the Enlightenment, the rise of deism, and the triumph of the American Revolution. Deism is not monotheism, which is why so many Christian leaders of that time called them atheists.

And yet there is a puzzle here. Profoundly beautiful and loving teachings are at the core of many teachers in all these monotheistic traditions. Those who have read Rūmī or Martin Buber can attest to an emphasis on kindness and care second to none.  Jesus was not alone in this respect.

Kindness and Care in actions as well as words

Many of humankind’s finest moments arose within a monotheistic cultural context and in its name.  I think the greatest ethical step forward ever made by human beings was the abolition of slavery. Ultimately successful opposition to a practice many thousands of years old was often led by Quakers. Northern clergymen demonstrating against segregation were among those murdered by Southern racists.  And of course, as I mentioned, there is Rev. King.

Nor are such noble acts a Christian monopoly.  Far too few Americans appreciate how Iran reacted to the crimes of 9-11.  Tens of thousands spontaneously engaged in candle light vigils on behalf of the men, women, and children murdered by the terrorists. 

Albania is the only majority Muslim European nation. During WWII it was invaded by the Nazis, who sought to round up every Albanian Jew, plus thousands of Jews who had fled there from the Germans, to deport them to death camps.  The Albanians saved every Jew. Most Christian nations did not come close to this record - where an entire nation risked their lives to save people of a different religion who were in many cases strangers.

Monotheism seems to have an innate proclivity to violence and it has inspired some of the most noble people in human history.



This is a complicated issue, but one deeply impacting every American, particularly those of us who are non monotheists. Therefore this is the first of a three part piece exploring why the real issue is not Christianity or Islam or even Monotheism, but rather a particular demonic degeneration that all forms of monotheism are especially prone to, and which is again leaving a bloody trail of death and destruction wherever its followers believe they have the opportunity to act in the name of their deity.


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Gus diZerega DiZerega combines a formal academic training in Political Science with decades of work in Wicca and shamanic healing. He is a Third Degree Elder in Gardnerian Wicca, studied closely with Timothy White who later founded Shaman’s Drum magazine, and also studied Brazilian Umbanda  for six years under Antonio Costa e Silva.

DiZerega holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from UC Berkeley, has taught and lectured in the US and internationally, and has organized international academic meetings.

His newest book is "Faultlines: the Sixties, the Culture Wars, and the Return of the Divine Feminine (Quest, 2013) received a 'silver' award by the Association of Independent Publishers for 2014. It puts both modern Pagan religion and the current cultural and political crisis in the US into historical context, and shows how they are connected.

His first book on Pagan subjects, "Pagans and Christians: The Personal Spiritual Experience," won the Best Nonfiction of 2001 award from  The Coalition of Visionary Resources. 

His second,"Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and a Christian in Dialogue" is what it sounds like. He coauthored it with Philip Johnson. DiZerega particularly like his discussion of polytheism in Burning Times, which in his view is an advance over the discussion in Pagans and Christians.

His third volume, "Faultlines: The Sixties, the Culture War, and the Return of the Divine Feminine," was published in 2013 and won a Silver award from the Association of Independent Publishers in 2014. The subject is obvious, and places it, and the rise of goddess oriented spiritual movements and our "cold civil war" in historical context.

His pen and ink artwork supported his academic research in graduate school and frequently appeared in Shaman’s Drum, and the ecological journals Wild Earth, and The Trumpeter. It now occasionally appears in this blog.


  • Jamie
    Jamie Sunday, 12 June 2016

    Mr. DiZerega,

    I'll be interested to see how you develop this line of argument. I have my own beliefs about monotheistic religions, and their tendency to centralize political and spiritual power. Please note that I realize power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. We're all human, and subject to the same urges and temptations.

    It will be interesting to see where we agree and disagree, since I am a Platonist.

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Sunday, 12 June 2016

    Part II will begin getting into that. I share a lot with Plato as I understand him, but I am far from an expert there, and am far more oriented to an immanent perspective as my own personal focus, though I readily acknowledge, and have experienced, the One. Please share your disagreements (as well as your agreements) because I learn best on what can be discussed in words by... discussing in words!

  • Christopher Blackwell
    Christopher Blackwell Monday, 13 June 2016

    I don't waste my time hating anyone. Hate is dangerous to the hater. In this case he was the fiftieth victim of his hate. If he had not let it take over, he might never have been a saint, but neither would he had been a monster.

    As for blame, who do we blame and, does it have any effect on stopping the bloodshed? No because fixing the blame never solves the problem.

    That leave only what each of us to to either end the problem, or,at least defuse it and slow it down. Beyond speaking up against hatred wherever we run into it, I have no idea what else to do.

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