So, I’m sure you’ve all seen the news about the shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. It sucks, especially because it may be a case of mistaken identity. What sucks more is how common religious violence is, and what sucks more is how few people would like to acknowledge it. Hell, religious violence isn’t limited to religious people; some of the worst massacres have been committed in the name of stamping religion out altogether.
I know a little about religious violence from my own experience. Part of my job as an analyst was to monitor tensions between nations in what were at least partially religiously motivated conflicts, including tensions between India and Pakistan, Israel and Palestine, as well as Sunni and Shia Muslims in Iraq. Some others you may know about include the conflicts between the Protestants and Catholics of Ireland, the religious civil war in the Philippines, the tension between churches and the government in China, and the issue with the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. Damn, that’s a lot, huh? Oh wait, I forgot all the miscellaneous tensions in Africa and South America between missionary groups, indigenous populations, and even their own governments. Violence isn’t limited to any one sect, faith family, or theology. Even the ancient Hellenes had their own religious wars among themselves. Yet, as much as the neopagan establishment wants to think otherwise, the world was not all peace and matriarchy–ever.
So why do we fight over religion in the first place? I’ll probably be the first Pagan, Hellenic or otherwise, to say this, but I think that answer is kind of obvious: some gods get a kick out of sending people to kill. We Hellenes even have mythic wars which are partially religious in nature, such as Dionysos’ campaign in India and the Titanomachy. Ares enjoys bloodshed, and I would not put it against him to motivate a follower based on religion. Many monotheistic faiths have God expressly commanding wars, and the Hebrews even carried G-d into battle on his throne, the Ark (btw, the Romans did this with Mars/Ares, too).
Other reasons include the fact that religions often cause conflict as part of a larger cultural conflict, such as that between the Protestants and Catholics in Ireland, or with any missionary ever. They may be seen as a foreign influence that may or may not be hostile (Western Islamophobia anyone?), or may be the symbol of political or historical rivalry (Ireland, India). Different religious views shape different, often opposing worldviews. We can even see this in the greater Pagan community in the strain between eclectic, syncretic groups and the “traditional” reconstuctionist groups.
At the end of the day, some folks are just nuts/assholes. Many violent folks don’t need an excuse to hurt others; they just do it. The fact is, religion or no, people will always kill each other. It’s hard-wired into our collective psyche. It transcends culture, race, and even sex. That being said, so does healing and the need to acknowledge even our perceived enemies as people. Sometimes, violence is the only option a people is left with, but just because you may be harassed by one member of another faith, that doesn’t mean all of them are oppressing you. Thicker skins are required by all.
I think today is one of those days when we need to reflect; while you do, contemplate what Homer left us:
Ares, exceeding in strength, chariot-rider, golden-helmed, doughty in heart, shield-bearer, Saviour of cities, harnessed in bronze, strong of arm, unwearying, mighty with the spear, O defender of Olympos, father of warlike Nike (Victory), ally of Themis, stern governor of the rebellious, leader of the righteous men, sceptred King of manliness, who whirl your fiery sphere [the star Mars] among the planets in their sevenfold courses through the aither wherein your blazing steeds ever bear you above the third firmament of heaven; hear me, helper of men, giver of dauntless youth! Shed down a kindly ray from above upon my life, and strength of war, that I may be able to drive away bitter cowardice from my head and crush down the deceitful impulses of my soul. Restrain also the keen fury of my heart which provokes me to tread the ways of blood-curdling strife. Rather, O blessed one, give you me boldness to abide within the harmless laws of peace, avoiding strife and hatred and the violent fiends of death.