Would you die for your religion? Is it better to die defiantly or to adopt the customs and prayers of your oppressors and wait for an opportune time to overthrow them? While this is not entirely a hypothetical question, few if any of us in the West will ever have to make this decision. Let’s keep it that way.
Would you kill for your religion? Of course you wouldn’t. You’re not a sociopath and you don’t use your religion as a pretext for grabbing political and military power at any cost. You might defend yourself against a religiously-motivated attacker, but the idea of killing someone for insulting your religion would never occur to you.
Would you beat someone with sticks and stones for your religion? Even if your religion doesn’t command you to “turn the other cheek” the idea borders on the absurd.
Would you verbally assault someone for your religion?
In the small Baptist church where I grew up, this is where someone would say “now you’ve quit preaching and gone to meddling.”
Many people who would never think of resorting to physical violence and who would never condone it if done by others have no qualms with throwing hateful and harmful words at people simply because they practice a religion that is different from their own. We’ve seen a particularly nasty example of that here in Texas recently, with Christians attacking Muslims simply for being Muslims.
Some of that comes from the passion religion inspires – passion that can cut both ways. Some comes from a poor command of logic and the inability to attack an argument without attacking the person making it. Some comes from poor social skills enhanced by the anonymity of the internet.
Keep in mind that a computer is like alcohol – it doesn’t put hateful words in your head. It just removes the inhibitions that keep you from saying them in person.
I suspect much of it comes from a lack of faith. The attacker isn’t really confident in his religion and feels threatened when someone challenges him. Or conversely, the attacker is so confident his religion is The One True Way so anyone else has to be stupid, ignorant, deluded, evil, or otherwise wrong and Must Be Stopped.
Regardless of why, verbally assaulting someone for their religion is not conducive to building a healthy society and reflects poorly on the attackers. While we are well within our rights (and perhaps even our obligations) to argue against religious concepts and doctrines that are demonstrably harmful, let’s remember to argue against the ideas and not the religion as a whole.
We do this because we respect the sovereignty of every person and every tradition. Each person has the inherent right to follow the religion that calls to them, to adhere to the religion of their parents or to adopt a new religion, and to do so without fear or coercion, regardless of what we think of their choices.
Religion writer and former Dallas Morning News reporter Jeffrey Weiss proposed Weiss’ Law of Religious Relativism: “any religion is, by definition, crazy to a nonbeliever.” He’s primarily referring to items taken on faith for which there is no proof, but it can just as easily be applied to matters that strike modern Westerners as arbitrary choices: why do Jews eat cows but not pigs? Why do Wiccans associate Air with the East?
In the end, we judge people by their actions, not their beliefs. We judge religions by how they inspire their followers to live, not by how closely they match our own religion. We dive deeply into our own traditions and we don’t worry about other people’s beliefs and practices unless they start attacking others.
Now let’s get to why all this matters here and now on this Pagan blog.
People who talk with the Gods can be scary. A few have done terrible things. Many more do great things. Terrible or great – either can be upsetting to those who are completely invested in the idea that the material world is the only world.
Then again, talking with the Gods should be scary. Read the stories of mystics in all traditions throughout the ages. John Halstead recently quoted from William Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” (1888)
And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 1179) saw mighty visions but tried to keep them to herself:
I, though I saw and heard these things, refused to write for a long time through doubt and bad opinion and the diversity of human words, not with stubbornness but in the exercise of humility, until, laid low by the scourge of God, I fell upon a bed of sickness; then, compelled at last by many illnesses, and by the witness of a certain noble maiden of good conduct and of that man whom I had secretly sought and found, as mentioned above, I set my hand to the writing.
Want a contemporary example? Here’s Morpheus Ravenna, Priestess of the Morrigan:
The realization that the Goddess you’ve dedicated yourself to has chosen to break your body to ensure the results She wants… is a weighty one. This is not a surprise to me. I knew what I was doing when I dedicated myself to Her fully and gave her guardianship of my destiny and my death. I just didn’t know specifically when or how She might collect on that commitment, and it’s a pretty profound thing to be experiencing. I don’t in the least bit regret it.
Not everyone can handle this intensity. In God-Speaking, Judith O’Grady tells the story of how author James Joyce brought his daughter to see psychiatrist Carl Jung. Joyce didn’t understand how his daughter could have schizophrenia. He said “The way she thinks is the way I think, and I am not crazy.” Jung’s response was “You are swimming. She is drowning.”
The line between genius and madness is hard to see and easy to cross.
I talk to the Gods every day. Sometimes They talk back. On rare occasions They talk back so loudly I can’t hear anything else.
No, I can’t prove they’re real. Yes, they might be hallucinations or wishful thinking. I’m intelligent enough and grounded enough to admit that’s a possibility. But they seem real enough and their effects are helpful enough that I order my life as though they’re absolutely real and absolutely true.
I believe the Gods are real, distinct, individual beings because that’s how I’ve experienced Them. The more I practice and the more I experience Them, the fewer doubts I have. Or maybe it’s just that the doubts that I have don’t matter as much.
You may find that unbelievable. You may find that unsettling. So be it – it’s not my place to tell you what to believe.
But I’m swimming happily and buoyantly, and in the end, that’s all that matters.