Republican Party

Demonize It! The Fundamentalist Obsession with Demons

Last updated on March 4th, 2020 at 02:39 am

Satan and demons seem to be everywhere, behind everything happening to our country. This was the rationale behind Rick Perry’s The Response and it is the continuing cry of Christian extremists. It isn’t real world facts that matter to the present-day Republican Party but beliefs: and not beliefs about those facts but beliefs about a very specific and extremist religious dogma.

I wrote about Satan the other day. Today I am going to look at all those demons. But to start off, I have to say a few words about my own religion, because it is from distortions about ancient polytheism (the belief in demons originated in Mesopotamia and the Babylonians had a well-developed demonology[1]) that modern ideas about demons derive.

We Pagans see the world as being full of the divine; Pagans always have, from ancient times to modern. Historically, Pagans saw the world as being full of spirits and this belief was so widespread in the ancient world that it was acknowledged even by Paul of Tarsus (Col. 1:16). The church may have preached against magic and astrology but nobody – even the average Christian on the street – doubted it was all real.

Anyone who has been scolded for using a Ouija board will know that that belief is still with Christians today. If only my kindly Lutheran grandmother would have known she was letting her beloved grandchildren converse with demons! My grandmother would have laughed at the idea, and rightly so. That doesn’t make this world any less real for those who believe in it.

It is no exaggeration to say that Paganism is earth-centered religion and that we see this life as the life we earth-based humans are meant to be living, not some nebulous afterlife. The earth, in other words, is a good place: it is home.

Whatever interpretation you wish to give to that nebulous afterlife, they are secondary to the here and now. Even in my own Heathen form of Paganism, conceptions of the afterlife are varied, and again, always have been; there was no dogma to follow, you see. Pagan religions are not religions of the book; they are not about belief but about cultic acts – rituals.  So hard-and-fast ideas about what happens to dead people were quite varied in the pre-monotheistic world. There was a Greek view that “the righteous dead lived on in heaven with the stars. The epitaph of soldiers fallen at the Battle of Potidaea in 432 BCE says that the aether had received their souls, the earth their bodies.”[2] These beliefs regarding death are important because as Luck says, beliefs in daimonia were closely related to the ancients’ attitudes toward the dead. The dead, like daimonia, could help you.[3]

Even our gods are of this earth, and not, as Christianity as often held it, from outside the earth. Christianity has long held that the earth is a fallen place, in the grip of evil forces, but that is contrary to how polytheists saw it in the ancient world and how we see it today. John J. Collins writes that the Bible and Plato held “that both the creator and the creation were very good.” But celestial eschatology (literally “study of the end times”) changed all this.

“The soul was weighted down by its earthly existence and was liberated to rise up after death” and Gnostics saw the demiurge (literally, “maker”) “as an evil figure and…represented the creation of the material world as a fall.”[4] Souls had to be saved from the material world and that is how fundamentalist Christians see it today. Christians are supposed to be looking to the next life; this is more of a preparatory stage for what really matters: heaven. It is no surprise then that Pagans and Christians see the spirits that inhabit this world in quite different ways, which takes us to Satan and all those demons we keep hearing about.

There is no Satan in polytheistic religions, no cosmic dualism, no good versus evil. Disney may make Hades the antagonist to Zeus’ protagonist but that is not how the ancients saw it. Hades  (his name means “the unseen”) is not to be equated with Satan and in the Hellenistic  period “even Hades was often located in the heavens”[5] and not some dismal below-ground pit of fire and torment. Hades represented the finality of death, not the destruction and enslavement of the soul. Even the ancient Jews, polytheistic to the core, saw only one common post-death end: Sheol, where all the dead went, good and bad alike. And Satan was merely a lieutenant of YHWH, not his arch-nemesis battling God for the souls of all humans.

If Satan’s reputation has suffered so has that of the daimonia of the ancient world. And it wasn’t the Christians who started it, but only popularized it. As Walter Burkett writes,

The gods, theoi, are many-shaped and beyond number, but the term theos alone is insufficient to comprehend the Stronger Ones. From Homer onwards, it is accompanied by another word which has had an astonishing career and lives on in the European languages of the present day: daimon, the demon, the demonic being. But at the same time, it is clear that the notion of the demon as a lowly spiritual being of a preponderantly dangerous and evil character emanated from Plato and his pupil Xenocrates. The notion has proved so useful that it is still impossible to imagine the description of popular beliefs and primitive religion without it; and if in religion an evolution from lower to a higher level is assured, belief in demons must be older than belief in gods.[6]

In fact, the distinction between the two (theoi and daimonia) is not always clear in ancient sources and even Platonists took the trouble of adding the adjective phaulos “bad” to make clear a daimon was bad.[7] For the ancients, daimonia were not fallen angels looking for bodies to inhabit and souls to corrupt but a broad category of divine beings, “widely thought to be less powerful than the gods but far more powerful than humans and capable of influencing human lives”[8] (and see Plato, Symp. 202E). Christians see demons as servants of Satan even though daimon as “evil spirit” appears only once in the New Testament (Matthew 8:31), but without a Satan such demons make no sense.

For Pagans, some daimonia could be dangerous but so could your neighbor’s dog and for that matter, your neighbor himself, who are not necessarily evil but simply had goals that were at cross purposes with yours. Daimonia were, in fact, “relatively indifferent to human activities” and could also behave in beneficial ways.[9] As Burkett puts it, daimonia stood “in the middle between gods and men, they are ‘interpreters and ferrymen’ who communicate the messages and gifts from men to the gods and from gods to men.”[10] The word angel derives from the Greek angelos “messenger” and it wasn’t always clear when a messenger was an angel or a daimon – it depended upon who sent it. As Luck explains,” the term messenger was colorless enough in itself to allow all sorts of different interpretations.”[11]

By the way, if you’re thinking favorable thoughts about angels, think twice: a twelfth century church council “warned against calling on angels for protection against illnesses or evil spirits. The angels are themselves demons.”[12] You just can’t escape the buggers.

Modern people raised in Christian religion need to relearn how ancients understood the cosmos to work, as a sort of divine pyramid, with the god of the philosophers at the top (the Neoplatonic “One”), then the Great Gods (Zeus, etc) in the tier below, followed by local/lesser gods and daimonia and then divine humans and demigods like Herakles, with humans occupying the lowest tier.[13] Looked at this way, it is easy to see how daimonia became messengers – they were far more accessible. And people sometimes wanted to access them; they did not live in abject fear of them as fundamentalist Christians do today.

No Pagan saw homosexuality as a result of demonic possession and anyway, it was the penetrated that was looked down upon, not the one who did the penetrating and for the simple reason that the penetrated was not playing the part of the man but of the woman, who was seen as submissive to the man’s aggressive. Religious dogma had nothing to do with it; these views were cultural. Modern Hellenes (Pagans who worship the Greek pantheon) who despise homosexuality (and who ought to know better) miss this point entirely.

In Christian times, of course, demons became the preferred term to the gods of polytheism (greater and lesser both), to who now belonged matters of this world – a lesser world than heaven for beings of a lesser order.[14] This remains a problem for us today, as MacMullen writes:

Presentist loyalties distort the shape and proportions of the past nowhere more often than in the treatment of religion, and most obviously, our own. The reason surely lies in the overwhelming nearness of the object to be understood; only when seen from a distance does comparisons with other religions make clear the peculiarity of Christianity’s structure.[15]

Unsurprisingly, Allah is also a demon according to Bryan Fischer, ‘a Demon God of Darkness, Violence, Death, and Destruction’ no less.  Only the Christian god can be accorded the title of God, with predictable results for all other deities and their followers. Speaking of Muslims and demons, Right Wing Watch reports that in a 2011 column, “Renew America’s Sher Zieve floats the idea that President Obama might be a demon.” No surprises there, for reasons which will become apparent below.

The Christian idea that people could be possessed by demons was an old one, as Michael Gaddis writes:

Christian apologists had long argued that demons were ultimately to blame for the evils of idolatry, persecution, and heresy – they tricked pagans into worshipping them as gods, and stirred up dissension and argument among Christians. This would imply, at least in theory, that pagans and heretics were not really enemies, but rather helpless victims of demonic delusion. But the ongoing struggle against demons could all too easily slide into ‘demonization’ of one’s worldly enemies.”[16]

Demons also, of course, inhabited Pagan “idols” and even temples.  This is why cult statues were destroyed, and temples too, if they were not rededicated as churches.

And it was not just Pagans who were accused. Christian monks too could demonize each other: “groups with a ‘sectarian’ mind-set tend to preserve their unity by focusing on ‘demonic’ external forces, whether literally (through fears of magic and witchcraft) or figuratively (by ‘demonizing’ human adversaries).”[17]

Gaddis writes that “it took no special effort to persuade monks – who regularly warned each other against demon-inspired false visions, and blamed the devil for their lapses and bouts with temptation – that they were engaged in a struggle against cosmic evil.” No surprise then that “‘Demonization’ in the literal sense – the identification of worldly opponents with Satan – has been argued to be a defining characteristic of early Christian mentality.” If all this sounds familiar, it should.[18]

The Christian monks of late Antiquity, who lived ascetic lives in the wilderness, “understood their endeavors in terms of spiritual combat against demons and the worldly temptations they personified. Resisting temptation, doing battle with the demons, counted as a form of spiritual martyrdom. All of these forms of holiness, in one way or another, constituted ‘bearing witness’ and spreading the faith.”[19]

The difference today is that while worldliness is preached against its fruits are not, and this spiritual warfare has become inseparable from hypocrisy.

Like those ancient monks, fundamentalist Christians blame their own weaknesses and failures on Satan’s influence and on demons and see the rest of us possessed by them. Renew America‘s Michael Bresciani claims, as do most other fundamentalists (including just the other day by disgraced Navy chaplain Gordon Klingenschmitt) that “There is little doubt that the entire gay and lesbian community is guided by a powerful demon spirit who is subordinate to Satan” and that these demons spread lies, a claim which is perfectly in keeping with these ancient attitudes. In many ways, sad to say, Christianity has been very consistent over the centuries.

This of course says much more of their failings and fears than it does we who are so accused. We are in a very real sense not fighting the same battles at all in the culture wars. We liberals see ourselves as battling intolerant (and often poorly educated) humans who have given into bigotry and who refuse to coexist within the framework of the modern liberal democracy, as people who simply do not understand the whole equality thing that lay at the heart of the U.S. Constitution.

But for fundamentalist Christians, something else entirely is going on – there is a level of warfare we liberals are unaware of: spiritual warfare.[20] Thus the war against Saddam Hussein was not just a war against Iraq but against Satan himself. Opposition to liberal legislation and policy is on the same spiritual plane, not just a war against humans they disagree with but humans in the thrall of Satan and demons. Though we laugh at the idea Demonic possession is something very real to these people and we need to understand this if we are going to understand their motives and their goals.

Though we correctly see Satan and his demons using something they invented in the first place to categorize and dehumanize everyone who isn’t like them – a straw man on a cosmic scale – they are quite serious in thinking they need divine intervention to tip the scales. If someone disagrees with them, they can curse him or try to free him from the demons that possess him. It isn’t unusual in Pentecostal circles to run across exorcisms or people who have participated in exorcisms. Pat Robertson brags about doing it himself. Frankly, if anyone can scare a demon it would be Robertson, who at the very least is an arch-demon himself.

This is a war ancient Pagans would no more have understood than the necessity of worshiping only one God. It is a war children of the Enlightenment also fail to understand, placing emphasis on the rational and dismissing the superstitious. We are all damned for it and equally without defense. As I was once told by a Pentecostal when I told her I don’t even believe in her Satan, “You are doing his work by not believing in him.” It’s a war we cannot win because its war in which facts don’t matter, only belief.

We can shrug off their imprecatory prayers and curses as harmless because they are, but we cannot make them understand why we are laughing in response. We are as a result in essentially the same position as all those victims of the Inquisition and the Witch Trials who could not assure their accusers of their innocence because like them, we have been pre-judged and condemned already.

It’s circular logic but then its circular logic that supports their stance on creationism and even the infallibility of the Bible itself. There is no way to crack the circle. All we can do is defend ourselves by ensuring that religious extremists never again hold the reins of power. What they have done in the past will pale in comparison to what they can do today with all the power modern technology offers.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

[1] Georg Luck, Arcana Mundi: Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds: A Collection of Ancient Texts (Johns  Hopkins University Press, 2006), 209.

[2] John J. Collins, “Cosmology: Time and History” in Ancient Religions, ed. by Sarah Iles Johnston (Belknap Press, 2007), 64.

[3] Luck (2006), 210.

[4] Collins (2007), 65.

[5] Collins (2007), 64-65.

[6] Walter Burkett, Greek Religion (Harvard University Press, 1985), 179.

[7] Luck (2006), 207.

[8] Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, Third edition (Oxford University Press, 2004), 492.

[9] Ehrman (2004), 25.

[10] Burkett (1985), 331.

[11] Luck (2006), 208.

[12] MacMullen (1997), 126.

[13] Ehrman (2004), 24-25.

[14] Ramsay MacMullen, Christianity & Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries (Yale University Press, 1997), 34, 121.

[15] MacMullen (1997), 107.

[16] Michael Gaddis, There is No Crime for Those Who Have Christ: Religious Violence in the Christian Roman Empire (University of California Press, 2005), 180.

[17] Gaddis (2005), 240-241.

[18] Gaddis, (2005), 241.

[19] Gaddis (2005), 169-170.

[20] I have a book of Spiritual Warfare Prayers (1988) compiled from The Adversary by Mark I. Bubeck (Moody Bible Institute, 1975). This book says that if you are diligent in “warfare prayer” you can use this book as a guide to help you “become and ‘overcomer’ of the Evil One!”

Hrafnkell Haraldsson

Hrafnkell Haraldsson, a social liberal with leanings toward centrist politics has degrees in history and philosophy. His interests include, besides history and philosophy, human rights issues, freedom of choice, religion, and the precarious dichotomy of freedom of speech and intolerance. He brings a slightly different perspective to his writing, being that he is neither a follower of an Abrahamic faith nor an atheist but a polytheist, a modern-day Heathen who follows the customs and traditions of his Norse ancestors. He maintains his own blog, A Heathen's Day, which deals with Heathen and Pagan matters, and Mos Maiorum Foundation, dedicated to ethnic religion. He has also contributed to NewsJunkiePost, GodsOwnParty and Pagan+Politics.

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