My God Made Me Pull The Trigger

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BEIRUT, Lebanon — An Islamic State militant executed his own mother in front of a post office in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa this week, Syrian activists said on Friday, with one monitoring organization adding that the problems began when she tried to persuade him to leave the extremist group.

The fighter, Ali Saqr, 21, killed his mother in front of several hundred people for what the Islamic State called apostasy

— From The New York Times

What is it that allows a man in his early twenties to hear the pleading sobs of his mother, a woman who kissed his bumps and bruises, fed him, changed his diapers, held him when he had nightmares… and pull the trigger?

He probably told himself that he had no choice.

Daesh is a horrible organization for more reasons than I can count. They are the Reductio Ad Absurdum of religious thinking, a living argument for why we must absolutely never put the (perceived) will of the divine above human well-being, and why our adherence to text should only be pursued after we ask ourselves what is actually best for our community.

Daesh is what happens when you try to pluck a religion, complete with all of its religious strictures and applications, out of the past, and plop it down into the present day.

Daesh is what happens when people submit to divine will without question.

As mystical Polytheists, we are, in some sense, literalists, when it comes to our divinities. We do not believe that our gods are metaphors. Most of us have a general belief that mythology is an accurate representation of these literal beings. In this respect, we resemble fundamentalist Christians and Muslims.

Today, most Polytheists are social activists, believe in science, are deep thinking people of excellent values, are individuals fighting for inclusion and tolerance, but look around you. Have you never seen two polytheists lobbing rhetorical rockets at one another from opposite sides of a community? There are those among us who become very angry about theological ideas. We have no widespread mechanism for accepting theological diversity. In this respect, too, we resemble fundamentalists.

There are many among us, too, who believe that once a deity has made a decision, it is final. Once they have backed you into a contract, you cannot escape it. Once they have made a demand, you cannot deny them. It is one thing to use religion to comfort yourself about something you cannot change, but when we look to suffering and ever, even in our heads, utter the words “meant to be,” we have immediately taken a theological position. That theological position is that what the gods want is more important than our happiness, our suffering, our physical pain or our emotional pain.

Ali Saqr, age 21, looked at his mother and decided that his own emotional pain, her physical pain, the tragedy of her death, was simply not as important as fulfilling the will of his deity, as he understood it. Her pain was not as important as the malcontent of Allah, whose religion he felt she had betrayed. This thinking is categorically wrong. It’s not wrong because it’s “the Abrahamic God.” It’s wrong because obedience to a deity should never take precedence over the human good.

As we mourn the loss of life (and loss of history) perpetrated by Daesh, we must take care that we never, not even ten thousand years from now, become them.

One life ended, destroyed, or made a living hell because of utterly preventable circumstances is one too many. The sacrifice of human decency, human dignity, or human compassion is nothing that religion has any right to take from us.

Obedience to the gods, while good in small doses, needs to be fenced in. Left unchecked, it can be the impetus for every manner of atrocity. Our reverence for the gods must be balanced by our loyalty to humankind.  Our faith must be tempered by a willingness to abandon deities whose worship causes tragedies, such as we are seeing perpetrated by Daesh.




  1. While I get what you’re saying here, I don’t think comparing modern polytheists to Daesh is particularly revelatory, or useful.

    No matter our theological differences, between polytheists or pagans or people of other religions, we are not and never have been in the position of saying that killing anyone (including ourselves) is a “good” thing, and to my knowledge, no Deities have suggested such measures. Even “moderate” Islam has messages in the Qur’an–remember, the infallible word of Allah (as spoken to the Prophet through an Angel)–has a plethora of messages about who can and should be killed under which circumstances: apostates, infidels, Jews and Christians, polytheists (always), “sodomites,” and so forth.

    No matter how much I or any of our colleagues accept that Zeus, Odin, Kali, Isis, the Morrígan, Antinous, and many many others are real, and that myths about them (while not being factually true) reveal something about their characters and characteristics, and that certain theological notions may or may not be appropriate to an actual polytheist mindset and position, and even that Deities might have positions on certain things in relation to certain people that it might be a good idea for them to follow (as might be the case in any relationship between humans), there is an order of magnitude–if not several–difference between any of those things and saying “Our Deities say we can kill these type of person with impunity.”

    If you want to give ammunition to those (who are usually non-polytheists) who think that polytheists are crazy, unstable, out-of-touch with reality, and are fractious by nature, and all of the other things they say about us constantly (often with a cheering section accompanying their statements), then it might be good to question whether or not you’ve just given them “a self-identified polytheist” saying things that will allow them to not only continue painting us in those negative fashions, but will also be quoted by them as “proof” that “the good polytheists” (not unlike the phrase “good Samaritans”: i.e. not meant to be taken as a compliment!) realize how screwed up all of us are, and are on “their” side.

    But, I don’t know how many of those individuals might be reading your work, so perhaps not. But who knows?

    As things are now, in ten thousand years, if any of our lineal or traditional descendants are still around and practicing, I seriously doubt that–based on how things stand at present–they’ll be in a position at all similar to that of Daesh. Their terrorist motives and the severely fundamentalist ideologies behind them are not a relic of the past lifted from 1300+ years ago and plopped into the 21st century, they’re all the result of more modernist schools of interpretation within Islam that aren’t any older than 18th century Wahhabi movements, at the earliest, even if they brand themselves as “reformist” and “restoring” and so forth (not unlike most of the “reformed” Protestant sects, their ways do not go back to Jesus and the Apostles, they go back to ideas from the 16th century, at the earliest). No modern polytheist has failed to realize we cannot go back to classical Athens, Pharaonic Egypt, Viking-period Sweden or late Iron Age Ireland (etc.), and that what we are inheriting from the past is going to look very different in modern society, where slavery is frowned upon (but still exists–but good riddance to its common and open practice!), people live longer, more of us have legal rights and political recognition, and ties to kin are often the last considerations many of us have rather than our first. The things we don’t like in public discourse, morality, and practice which are at vast variance with modern culture are not many of these advances in rights and recognition, nor in technology, but in things like rampant consumerism, shallow materialism (as opposed to animism, in which one might be committing to a particular item one owns for life, or to pass it down to future generations, etc.), or the general devaluation of piety, devotion, and respect for all sorts of things in addition to religious persons, practices, and the Divine Beings they might worship.

    This isn’t even apples and oranges; this is apples and cedar trees. Both may be plants, but beyond that, there’s not a lot which suggests they should be taken in categories next to each other.

    But that’s just my viewpoint on the matter. You’re free to have yours. (And I’m serious about that–not that you need me to tell me that, though!)

    1. So, you brought up a few interesting points here, that I’d like to reply to. But first, I do not agree that we are comparing apples and palm trees, or even apples and oranges. Rather, we are comparing humans and humans.

      So, the comparison to the Islamic State might have been irresponsible. But I wasn’t actually attempting to make a direct comparison between Polytheists and Radical Islamists. Rather, I was struck by this one tragic, and particularly human, moment in time, this one human being caught up in the perfect storm of theology, fear and reckless obedience. I was thunderstruck by the fact that someone could shoot his own mother, and I thought for a long time about what must have been happening for him that he did this. I pondered, too, all the people in this movement who are so caught up in it, so excited by it, and wondered if they could really *all* be sociopaths.

      I especially took a moment to slow my roll and think more deeply on what *made* Daesh after reading this article in The Atlantic:

      In thinking on it, I realized that Ali Saqr was just a very extreme case of someone reasoning that theology, or deity, or an idea, was greater than empathy. What I saw in this one man’s moment was something dark and terrifying, but essentially human, and something we’re not immune to. Religion is a tool. The way it takes shape determines how it can be used.

      Speaking to the Non-Polytheists who follow my blog, that seemed to be what they took from it. That I wasn’t calling out Polytheism for being similar to Daesh, but rather, that I was drawing out something essentially human from this one man’s tragic decisions, seeing it in my community, in myself, but really only in the sense of seeing myself and my community as a microcosm of humanity.

      Not that we should really be making decisions about what possible community problems we should discuss openly based on what outsiders think.

      There are certain groups of Pagans that are simply out to discredit everything other than their own initiatory tradition. We’re going to get that no matter what. Those people simply think that if they yell loud enough, they can make people see the metaphysical universe the way they do. They’re looking to build their power base.

      I don’t care about them. I do care about us. I care about Polytheists. I see problems that are eating away at us, and making us weaker, as a community. I see us giving in to basic human impulses which are destructive. I do see Polytheists getting hurt. If we don’t bring up and discuss internal issues which stand in the way of us thriving, spiritually and socially, we are fucked. It’s true that some person or other might point at us and say, “They have problems!” I feel sorry for those people. They either think that the tradition that they subscribe to is without fault (and will suffer a very rude awakening at some point), or else they are a lonely seeker who will be lonely until they die, because they expect that they will someday find their perfect community.

      Problems that are not addressed metastasize into bigger problems. We can’t afford to close down cross-community dialogue about things because an outsider might think we have issues. We’re human. Of course we have issues. They have issues. Humanity has issues.

      As you point out, Islamism became what it is today because of Wahhabism, and it has likewise expressed itself (for example, in Andalusia, or in instances where Muslim communities, on the whole, exist in affluence, or when they are Sufis) in a much more peace-loving, moderate form. Absolutely fair point.

      Humans, when they look into their scriptures or holy texts or mythology, are going to pull out what is meaningful and useful, but they are always going to cling to the religion’s essentials. Humans will bend their religion as far as it will stretch to accommodate different things that human societies need or want to do. “As far as it will stretch” is the big thing, here. If the religion is extremely stretchy, then, once we’ve got the numbers, we’ll behave like any other group of people — violent and unreasonable when we feel like our back is against the wall, peace loving and relaxed about our principles when we undergo periods of power and prosperity.

      Right now, we are small, and we have the power to shape the future of the movement far more than people will a hundred years from now. Now is a great time to lay down some skeletal structure so that there will be certain directions that our religions cannot bend in.

      “No matter our theological differences, between polytheists or pagans or people of other religions, we are not and never have been in the position of saying that killing anyone (including ourselves) is a “good” thing, and to my knowledge, no Deities have suggested such measures.”

      I assume you mean modern Polytheists. Obviously, when they wanted to trump up some charges to kill Socrates for being a nuissance, apostasy seemed like a very reasonable thing to execute him for. We know from this that apostasy was one of those things that the Athenians executed people for. And certainly, if you want to talk about forcibly assimilating people into their culture, neither the Greeks nor the Romans are innocent of that. Nor the Babylonians.

      In modern times — and it is this which concerns me, and it is to this which I am responding — I have heard people say things like, “Yes, that deity will probably kill him. He’ll die young, but that is what you get for oathing to X.” Or, just as concerning, “Yeah, after that encounter with the deity, I am completely debilitated by (insert thing that normal people deal with all the time) but I feel this is what the deity wanted.” And perhaps worst of all, some iteration on, “they hurt me all the time, but that’s how they are initiating me.” That’s in the self harm category. Then there are people who will tell you that you ABSOLUTELY MUST worship Deity X, or the deity will do something terrible to you, which is actually another way of saying that the speaker believes that the one to whom they are speaking absolutely *deserves* a negative consequence.

      Going well beyond the metaphysical, there are members of our community who have had enemies call up their employer and try to get them fired from their jobs. Enemies, mind you, not because the person did something to hurt anyone, but because he expressed ideas that those people did not like.

      If we boil this down to the atomic level, the problem is putting ideas (or religion, or deities) before a basic loyalty to our fellow humans. When we lose our empathy, we embody the darkest aspects of our human nature. If we want to see what happens when we distill this dark side of human nature, when we place ideology above empathy? We see that distillation in the Inquisition, The Holocaust, and, yes, in Daesh.

      1. I don’t disagree with much of what you’ve written here.

        I think the situation with Socrates was a bit different than you characterized it: “apostasy” isn’t an idea that could exist for the Greeks, but trying him as a “public nuisance” and political dissenter (possibly) was something that they recognized. I don’t think any of them would argue that the Gods were on the side of killing Socrates, even though he was accused of impiety. But those are side points…I am not sure that “our Gods told us to do it” was a particularly common viewpoint in the past; forcible assimilation was something that tended to be done for political reasons rather than religious ones a lot of the time. But, again, side issues about which we (and many others) could debate for centuries!

        What you are saying about respect for other humans is very important. Sadly, one of the other points you brought up is the crux of a different issue, and an essential one in making sure nothing like this loss of respect for human dignity, personhood, and liberty of conscience/association/etc. ever occurs as a result of polytheists who are in the tradition of modern groups and movements and individuals. You said “Now is a great time to lay down some skeletal structure so that there will be certain directions that our religions cannot bend in,” and I fully agree–and yet, there are some polytheists, and many pagans, who are against doing exactly that in any way, shape, or form, especially if it involves religions becoming “institutionalized” or having “set beliefs” of any kind (including ones that enshrine good behavior and encourage it in others). To this day, there are pagans who are arguing that those who think trans* people should be excluded, and in many ways are deficient or “not fully human” for various gender-essentialist binarist notions (as one example among many) should not be treated as bigots, but instead “that conversation needs to happen and shouldn’t be shut down,” thus indicating that the human dignity, rights, and liberties afforded to some, and which they’d expect to be given to themselves without question (and would fight anyone who tried to do otherwise), should not be extended to others automatically. Whenever I hear someone say that “that conversation needs to happen” when it comes to race, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, or any other non-privileged status, it’s always pretty easy to find the privilege (and it often still appalls me that some people who are not privileged in certain respects are so quick to sell others down the river when these questions occur, e.g. gay men and lesbians [often but not always white ones] who think “the trans issue” is still something which should be openly debated, and of course the ever-present white people saying “don’t exclude racists–they’re entitled to their opinions” when these matters come up, etc.) that is motivating such ideas which work against even establishing respect for all persons as a sine qua non.

        It occurs with theological issues too, often even more and more vehemently, but because they cannot even agree on things like this, and that racism and other discriminatory viewpoints should have no quarter in their communities, then we’re not likely to ever get a situation where we can ensure that our religious viewpoints will not be used by someone down the road to kill XYZ persons, etc.

        The very active and vociferous campaigns to mitigate against any group (particularly any group other than one’s own) ever coming to a definite position on any sort of belief, whether theological or social/political, is something that is going to hamstring pagan groups for the foreseeable future; and, if we’re not careful, it will occur with polytheists as well when that kind of useless anti-establishment baggage is brought over into our groups and communal practices.

      2. I feel like carving out a subset of Polytheists who basically agree that bigotry is wrong, empathy is of paramount importance and that people whose relationships with deities destroy them are not spiritual role models. I toyed with the idea of using a petition tool for showing exactly how much consensus there was about the fact that this is a good idea…. of course, if it garners no support, I am going to be extremely depressed.

  2. I agree with AA – and I think two things should be noted here.

    One, what Daesh is doing would never have been possible in the pre-Christian world, would not have been thinkable to an ancient polytheist. The idea of remaking the world via war and mass murder, even without it being done in the name of a supposedly all-powerful deity, would have been perceived as absurd for a number of reasons. Mainly because polytheism was and is by its very nature pluralistic, but also because of how theology shaped concepts of community, time, and what “the world” actually constitutes. Daesh knows many things that the people who practiced our religions did not. They know that the world is now a planet, finite in its physical boundaries, and theoretically conquerable. They know that Judaism invented the precursor to linear time, that Christians invented the religious war, that the Europeans invented race and nationalism, that the Ottomans invented genocide and that the Nazis perfected it. They know that brutal violence gets them what they want. The politics and policy that we suffer now would be quite unimaginable to an ancient polytheist pagan, and would probably be looked on with horror.

    The other thing I want to note is that while it’s possible to serve a God utterly, this need not actually translate into causing injury to third parties. Set boundaries to keep it between you and Them, etc. It’s my belief that neither human nor God need get “put first”, even – that’s one of the definitions of voluntary association.

  3. Accepting the will of your god without question is a very dangerous thing and we absolutely must both be aware of it and run fast in the other direction of it. It’s okay to struggle with the gods, it’s okay to tell them no, it’s 100% okay to refuse them what we think they want. If we choose to believe that the only way to be is to accept the word or the will of a god without question, we do ourselves and others great harm. Polytheists are no less likely to become radical extremists than other sorts, we just don’t have the numbers for the crazies to concentrate into large groups of people with guns.
    I believe the Gods want us to be better than we are and part of that is using our very large brains to figure out when to say “No. That’s not healthy behavior. That’s not good for me. That hurts others. I choose compassion.”

  4. I agree. We all need to be careful of these human tendencies, which are universal. The posters above said that we perfected genocide in the modern era, which is true; but the practice of genocide (perhaps without the complex ideology) goes back thousands of years on a smaller scale, perhaps even to the very dawn of our species, if we take the archeological evidence of our destruction of the Neanderthal and other prehistoric peoples seriously. Now, the “tribes” being targeted to be wiped out consist of millions, even billions of people. Then, a distinct ethnic group might be a few thousand people, in a far less populated world. But is the drive to destroy the Other in these two different situations really all that different? I think it’s a matter of scale and complexity, nothing more.

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