Question of the Week: Violence

The week that wraps around the end of March and the beginning of April this year had rather a lot of well-publicised mass murders in the United States.

Sat 4 April: Father is suspected of shooting dead his five children, then himself, near Seattle

Sat 4 April: Gunman kills three policemen in Pittsburgh before being wounded and captured

Fri 3 April: Gunman kills 13 people at an immigration centre in Binghamton, New York state, then apparently shoots himself

Sun 29 March: Gunman kills seven elderly residents and a nurse at a nursing home in Carthage, North Carolina, then is shot and wounded himself

Sun 29 March: Man kills five relatives and himself in Santa Clara, California.

On 16th April, USA Today published a feature article describing the real motives behind the Columbine High School massacre, which are easier to discern now that the shooters’ personal diaries are being made public. It turns out that the cause was not violent video games, nor a desire for media attention, nor bullying nor harrassment. Rather, their minds were dominated by rather more straightforward dispositions: paranoia and suicidal depression (in the case of Dylan Kiebold) and misanthropy, superiority, and narcissism (in the case of Eric Harris).

But in today’s question, I’m less interested in motivations and explanations. I’m more interested in prevention and healing. And while an explanation may be useful in the crafting of preventative measures, I’m also interested in what, if anything, principles of earth-based spirituality could contribute to prevention and healing. Are ideas like the beauty of the earth, the reliability of intuition as a source of knowledge, the stories and the presence of the gods, and so on, able to help such people become better human beings? Are any of our wisdom-teachings, such as “The Earth is our mother, we must take care of her”, or “We are a circle within a circle”, or “All acts of love and pleasure are my rituals”, capable of preventing such people from appearing in the first place?

This is a much more serious question than it may seem at first, and it requires a serious answer. For a purpose like this, “visualising white light” and tapping the meridian points will not be good enough. I’m sure that if Jim Adkisson had Tarot card readers among his friends, or was receiving Reiki treatments for minor health ailments, he probably still would have shot nine people in the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, killing two of them. His suicide letter makes it clear that he was motivated by political hatred, as well as a sense of personal hopelessness. It might be added that he was certainly “doing his will”, which the Thelemites teach is the whole of the Law.

One way to approach the question might be like this. Christians present such people (well, everyone really) with the “good news” of Christ’s saving grace. Muslims present the Seven Pillars of Islam and other teachings of God communicated to humanity by the Prophet. Hindus offer the global and cosmic unity of the Atman, thus showing that in killing another he kills a piece of himself. Buddhists perscribe substituting compassion in the place of attachment. These ideas are presented confidently, seriously, with impressive conviction, and often in the face of extraordinary danger. What do we offer? What, if anything, can pagans helpfully say to the Timothy McVeigh‘s of the world? What, if anything, could we helpfully do for them, or with them?

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18 Responses to Question of the Week: Violence

  1. erynn999 says:

    I think that in some cases we can’t really do much of anything. A lot of these people have serious clinical problems that any spiritual path, at best, might hold at bay for a little while. When someone is clinically paranoid, telling them to follow their intuition is not a good idea — their intuition is that everyone is secretly working against them.

    Political hatred is something that has to be tackled by family, the schools, and society at large. Until things like anti-Semitism, racism, sexism and other harmful -isms are completely unsupported by our society we are going to see kids latching onto them as a way to make themselves feel superior to the “other.”

    What can spirituality — specifically Pagan spiritualities — provide? Ideas of equality and interconnectedness, ideas of the sacredness of life in general, better connection with the planet as a whole. In some cases, these things might help if people hook into them before their disturbances become truly pathological, but I think it would as well require a change in society as a whole. Until our entire society changes the way it lives and its emphasis on power, money, and divisive political and religious hatreds, we’re not going to make huge progress on these issues.

    I seriously think that overpopulation has a lot to do with the stresses. Too many rats in a cage will eventually turn on each other. We’re those rats. Our water, food, and air are polluted and genetically altered. Our environment is failing. Human connections are severed in favor of too many hours of sitting like a spud in front of an electronic babysitter of whatever sort. Education is turned into a factory rather than a process of encouraging and satisfying curiosity.

    There’s no one cause. There’s no one cure.

    • darach says:


      Wow. Great toughts. It will have to be a community effort. Someone some where will start the momvement and it will go from there… eventually.

      • erynn999 says:

        Re: erynn999

        Thank you. I think people are working on it individually and that at some point we may reach some kind of critical mass, but it’s hard to tell when and where that tipping point will be.

  2. Ok, this is kinda freaky. At the same time you were writing this piece, I was in a restaurant half way between Glace Bay and Halifax eating lunch and reading this is the news paper:

    It doesn’t answer your question, well at least not from a spiritual community angle. It certainly does from a law enforcement angle. Very interesting stuff. I have blogging plans for this myself; let’s just say we might want to look at why it’s always a gunman.

    As to that spirituality angle, once again I’m agreeing with Erynn999. Once the pathological problems have set in, there’s not a whole lot anyone can do. Although I do suspect (for the very reasons Erynn999 listed) that there wouldn’t be too many of the gunmen types that would be attracted to Paganism anyway.

  3. snowcalla says:

    And we can offer the (slightly updated) Delphic Maxims confidently, seriously, with conviction. I haven’t ever had to offer them in the face of extraordinary danger.

    Then again, I’m not part of an earth-based spirituality (Hellenismos)so perhaps my answer is N/A.

    • admin says:

      Can you tell me more about the Delphic Maxims (sources, text / translation, etc) please?

      • snowcalla says:


        Here they are in Greek and English. This is all of the ancient ones, almost all are still valid today, a few aren’t. (Like 95, Rule Your Wife) Some seem to repeat, but they are different. 101 has the word “sin” in it but does not mean sin in a Christian context. It means “bad deed” – that would be closer. Educate Your Sons would now read Educate Your Children.

        If you want to get into a discussion about the maxims, I’m willing, but perhaps in a different place than here where it is a bit easier.

        A new book on the Delphic Maxims from a Pagan author:

        Longing for Wisdom: The Message of the Maxims
        By Allyson Szabo

        That book is one put out by BIBLIOTHECA ALEXANDRINA. All of the proceeds for these books will go to help promote the worship of the gods of Greece and Egypt, either by being used to bring out further volumes or given to charitable causes in the name of the gods.

        *** I should add. The Maxims are not commandments and are not to be seen that way. They were not given to man by the Gods. They are “Wise Saying” about how a good, decent human should live their life. By living your life following the Maxims as a guide, you will live a life of honor (without honor there is no true happiness) and will have a better afterlife. That is over simplified, but has the general concept.

        • admin says:

          Thank you. Wish I knew about these when I was writing OSV! Well, I can certainly make good use of them in the book I’m working on right now. 🙂

  4. alfrecht says:

    I agree very much with .

    However, I think in your last paragraph, you’re going a bit off the track of what pagan spiritualities really ought to do best, i.e. present people with things to do, rather than things to believe. Some of those teachings are good teachings (the Buddhist ones in particular), but they still are, first and foremost, beliefs and value statements. Exemplary living and exemplary practice is really what is needed, more in general, in all religions and in all social structures, rather than clear statements of ideal.

    Perhaps if these various individuals could have stepped back, taken a few deep breaths, and found a bit of detachment from the flood of emotions that no doubt swept them up in doing these various things, which some of them tried to then explain in words and logical statements…that’s the problem, really. The words can’t save someone anymore than the words usefully justify the actions they took. If people had a way of dealing with unpleasant emotions and contextualizing their negative experiences, things like this would probably happen less…and yet, there would have to be fundamental changes in how people raise their children, treat each other, how education happens, how the media portrays events, and a whole host of other things, to even begin addressing that level of things.

    • admin says:

      I think in your last paragraph, you’re going a bit off the track of what pagan spiritualities really ought to do best, i.e. present people with things to do, rather than things to believe.

      Yes, I know that this is a major feature of modern paganism. I’ve acknowledged it in my books too. And we’re not the only tradition in the world that puts practice before theory. “Things done come first, interpretations later” wrote P. Rawson in The Art of Tantra, for instance.

      Nonetheless I think my question is a fair one. For the answer doesn’t have to be phrased in the form of a belief statement. That may seem implied by the choice of examples I used, but it certainly isn’t demanded by the nature of the question as I posed it. And anyway many of the practitioners of those religions would probably also say that their practices matter a great deal to them.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Reading these comments, it seems like people believe paganism can’t offer anything at all to counter the problem of violence that Bren suggests. But honestly, what’s the point of calling this thing a religion if people have nothing to say about the serious problems of our time?

    Funny how so few people on here actually *answer* Bren’s questions, but instead attack the question as something its wrong to ask, or even try to make Bren look like a bit of an idiot just for asking it. Can nobody see what he’s trying to do here? Can no one see he’s trying to bring more unity and maturity to paganism?

    Gods, it’s no wonder that nobody takes paganism seriously. Someone like bren stands up and asks some serious questions, and we poke him down for it. We’re all a bunch of immature self-centred children playing with magic. no wonder Bren was talking about quitting the movement a few months ago.

    Trisha Foley

    • erynn999 says:

      I think at best, spirituality — ANY spirituality — is only a partial answer. Christians certainly would claim their spirituality will cure all ills, but there are an awful lot of Christian nutcases out there and most of the words of the suicidal/homicidal cults we see are in some sense Christian-based. Does that mean I think spirituality is worthless and has no answers for anyone? Of course not. Do I think that Paganism has one great answer for our problems? No, in large part because Paganism isn’t one great monolithic religion, it’s a huge umbrella for a vast variety of spiritualities with an immense spectrum of beliefs and practices.

      If you think that you’re an immature self-centered child (I assume you’re including yourself in that “we”), that’s your prerogative. I’ve met a lot of good people doing a lot of good, serious work based on their spiritual and magical lives.

      I want to point out yet again that sometimes the violence is because a person is so psychologically broken that they’re beyond the help of any spiritual path. This does not mean that spirituality in general and Paganism in particular have nothing to offer, it just means that it must offer and be accepted before things get to the point where people become psychopaths and sociopaths.

    • alfrecht says:

      I take exception to the various “we” and “nobody” statements you’ve made here, especially in your last paragraph. However, that aside for the moment…

      One of the great differences between religions of practice (or conduct or experience) and religions of belief is that the latter is more concerned with answers, whereas the former is more concerned with questions. The net effect of this is that religions of belief usually have a once-and-for-all, no negotiations possible, ANSWER for a question, and no argument or discussion can follow. The answer usually is the particular form of “belief” involved. This is very good for creating a sense of certainty amongst believers, but it can also lead to thoughts of infallibility, moral justification for things which are reprehensible, and a variety of other less-than-desirable outcomes.

      Religions of experience, though, often do not have as many set answers and beliefs, or an emphasis on finding them even, as much as they focus upon having interesting questions, and as a result interesting manners by which to approach a particular issue. So many spiritual paths of this type are exactly that: paths to walk, as opposed to definite destinations (the “answers” so favored by creedal/belief-based religions). As a result, clarifying one’s questions, or pointing out what blind spots a particular question might have in relation to an issue of importance, is a very significant and essential process to undergo when philosophically engaging with these topics.

      None of us are going to have THE answer to any question that makes; we may have “an” answer, but oftentimes those answers aren’t really going to be relevant or useful to others. Furthering the discussion by clarification of underlying methods of approach, therefore, is often much more useful and applicable than just saying “For me, I do this, that, and the other” or “I think X, Y, and Z.”

      I think ‘ intent in these weekly questions is probably more like “trying to get people to think and discuss,” rather than attempting to bring more maturity and unity to paganism. Maturity can certainly increase, but part of maturity is nuance in one’s arguments, and I think these clarifications serve to assist that purpose. As for “unity” in paganism, it’s perfectly possible to have fellowship and respect and cooperation without “unity” in belief or ideas, and as soon as anyone starts to suggest that someone is “not as unified” in their methods is generally to be on the road to suggesting that such a person is “wrong.” One of the hallmarks of neopaganism, and long may it be so, is the general lack of doctrinal authority, so any attempt to bring “unity” would probably be an attempt at tyranny…and I think that’s the furthest thought from ‘ mind!

      • admin says:

        is essentially correct when he infers that my intent is to try and get people to think and discuss things with me and with each other. Indeed that is the purpose of my books too. I may as well add that I’m not interested in preaching anything nor gaining converts.

        But it’s also the case, as many of you may also know, and as Trisha knows (since she and I have known each other for many years), that I find a great deal of what goes on in the pagan movement to be insufferably stupid. Some of that stupidity is harmless and amusing; some of it is potentially dangerous and destructive. Furthermore, even after many months, I still find myself philosophically troubled by Deo’s departure from the movement.

        I therefore also wish to create changes in the pagan movement.

      • Anonymous says:

        “so any attempt to bring “unity” would probably be an attempt at tyranny”

        Man, you’re paranoid. Get a grip! Someone who says “Let’s find ways to get along with each other” is not trying to oppress you.


  6. Why it is a gun*man*, to answer an implied question above, is pretty clear to me: Men are not allowed to cry in public. And everything that implies.

    The only way to stop A from killing B is to make A stop believing that it’s a good idea. It’s the only way. That has to be done on the individual level, listening, understanding. Because by the time someone gets to that point, spirituality of every kind has failed; he only sees his pain. It’s Maslow, really.

    My solution to gun violence involves making the world a better place, a place in which people do not *want* to shoot other people. (That’s where spiritualities come in.) But I get resistance, because this solution is hard, and it’s so much easier to create a Gun Registry that targets only the innocent so we can tell the voters we’re Getting Something Done, or shrugging and calling the kids names out of the DSM so we can pretend They Were Just Bad Seeds And There Was Nothing We Could Do, or my personal pet peeve, blame the latest rock star – do none of these Concerned Parents remember what *their* folks said about Elvis Presley?

    But blame is what one does to avoid looking for a solution.


  7. Anonymous says:

    To attempt to actually answer the question –

    What can paganism offer? A larger reality and a chance to be a part of it.

    The common threads of your examples were despair and self-obsession. Their worlds were small, single-occupant worlds with nothing in them worth living another day for. But these people all seemed to be grasping after a larger context – to have their last act matter, to die in a way that would make their names notorious, like the man who burned down the temple of Artemis so that history would remember him. Like most of the evil in the world, this seems to be a dysfunctional expression of a healthy impulse – to be a part of something bigger than yourself, to matter.

    Your book on virtue mentions a passage from the Lord of the Rings, where in a moment of despair Sam looks up and sees a star, and thinks to himself that all earthly troubles are small and temporary in the grand scheme of things, and that the world still holds beautiful things for all that. That’s what religion does, I think – remind us of that. So do art and storytelling, and philosophy. We call low-quality entertainment and recreational drugs ‘escapism’ perjoratively, precisely because they fail as escapes. Art and religion succeed, or rather, they make escape less needful, because they make a claustrophobic world larger and a barren world richer. If you are part of a larger pattern, you are never wholly alone and your life is never pointless. You matter.

    Now, I’ve been talking about ‘religion’ generically, because I do believe that locating human life in a cosmic context is the common thread between religions, not theism or ethics. But I believe that paganism specifically has something to offer because it places so much emphasis on this aspect, over the other things. Belonging to the natural world, seeing the deities as Elder Kin, feeling connected to people long ago whose practices inspired ours – these are both antidotes to meaninglessness and alienation, and inducements to consider how our actions affect others, which is the beginning of morality.


  8. Anonymous says:

    Paganism and Healign

    I have a longer response on my blog site.

    Peace Charlene

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