Tag Archives: religion

Neurotheology Team Proves “God Helmet” Is Real, Eliciting Mystic States, Visions & God-Like Presence

Basilique Saint-Nazaire-et-Saint-Celse de Carcassonne, Carcassonne, France. Photo by Scarlett Messenger
Basilique Saint-Nazaire-et-Saint-Celse de Carcassonne, Carcassonne, France. Photo by Scarlett Messenger

Neurotheology Team Proves “God Helmet” Is Real, Eliciting Mystic States, Visions & God-Like Presence

A team of neurotheology researchers have replicated and confirmed the results of the iconic “God Helmet” experiment. The apparatus, originally developed by renowned neuroscientists, Stanley Koren and Michael Persinger, generates weak magnetic fields around the test subject’s temporal lobes, and elicits a distinct set of experiential phenomena in the participant’s brain, including: altered mystic states, visions of God, and the feeling of a sensed God-like presence.

Dionysus, Live at the Apollo: The Modern Rock Concert as Ecstatic Spectacle

Bacchus figurine, Pompeii. Photo by Scarlett Messenger
Bacchus figurine, Pompeii. Photo by Scarlett Messenger

Dionysus, Live at the Apollo:

The Modern Rock Concert as Ecstatic Spectacle

A tremendous hope finds expression in this work. After all, I have absolutely no reason to renounce the hope for a Dionysian future of music.

-Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo1

The purpose of my research is to explore how the modern rock concert is a manifestation of the ecstasy cults of of history by nature and design. Specifically, I will be looking at the Dionysian cult of ancient Greece. The aspects of this phenomenon I will discuss are the rock concert as ecstatic experience and initiation into a spiritual subculture through depersonalization and deindividuation for marginalized minorities and disaffected youth, the induction of altered states of consciousness due to hyper-stimulation and intoxication, and how the physical experience of the theater is designed to contribute to this. This image of the rock star as Dionysian figure has been nurtured by musicians, PR agents, and the media to emphasize and enhance this impression for rock music fans and perpetuate the image. Intoxication, mindless acts of destruction or violence, and hyper-sexuality have become the expected mode of behavior for rock musicians and their fans by society, and all these facets have roots in the ecstatic Dionysian behaviors of the past.

As Western Civilization has evolved, we have retained many of our primal traditions; football has taken the place of gladiatorial-style combat, weddings still contain vestiges of their fertility ritual origins, families commonly have minor rite of passage ceremonies for adolescents. At first glance, it would seem that the art of ecstatic spiritual revelation has been lost to the staid traditions of modern Christianity. Throughout known human history, music has been equated with the spiritual and the ecstatic. When exploring the earliest known human cave paintings in southern France, scientists noticed a correlation between cave chambers with paintings of what is potentially shamanistic subject matter and cave chambers with optimal acoustics for singing and chanting2. The tribes of West Africa held grueling possession rituals that involved days of constant singing, dancing, and drumming, and the hills of ancient Greece pulsed with the drunken dithyrambs of the ecstatic followers of Dionysus. But where have these traditions gone in our modern world? The answer lies hidden in plain sight – so much so that the participants themselves deliberately court the imagery of the ecstasy cult, often without fully understanding the archetype they are pursuing. The idea that the modern rock concert is a manifestation of the Dionysian cult by nature and design is not a new one. The idea has been proposed since the inception of rock music by people such as mythologist Joseph Campbell and famed essayist and music journalist Robert Christgau. Even Friedrich Nietzsche called for the resurgence of the Dionysian in music before rock music was even conceived.

In this paper, I will discuss the correlations and connections between the modern rock, pop, and dance music concert experience and the ecstatic cults of the past. I will trace the spiritual and cultural origins of the modern rock concert experience to its Dionysian ancestor and explore the practices and mechanisms behind this phenomenon. For the purposes of this paper, I have defined “rock” as any popular and alternative music genre from the 1950s to present day that were heavily influenced by American Blues, Country, Jazz, and Gospel. The focus of this research is primarily the heyday of rock and pop decadence of the late 20th century. Although all time periods of contemporary music have had pockets of Dionysian subcultures, the late 20th century provided the world with a potent combination of post-war prosperity, a large “Baby Boom” youth culture, social permissiveness, and the technology to provide global media coverage to spread rock music’s aesthetic and message. The modern rock concert is an ecstatic experience/initiation that demonstrates the core principles of a rite of passage, with separation from the outside world, a state of liminality, and reincorporation as member of a new subculture. By isolating the concert-goer in the windowless theater as a yonic/womblike experience, the subject is put into a physical environment where deindividuation, convergence, emergence, and rebirth or transformation are inevitable. The physical demands of the concert going experience contributes to an altered state of consciousness comparable to the ecstasy seen in the Dionysian cult, and relies on similar archetypes and methods of ingress to achieve these goals.

Dionysus and His Cult

In his 1872 work, The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, Friedrich Nietzsche argues that the purpose of the Dionysian in art, particularly that of theater and music, was to engage the individual in what he called Primordial Unity, thereby transcending the sorrows of this world and finding solace in the universal experience:

In song and in dance man exhibits himself as a member of a higher community : he has forgotten how to walk and speak, and is on the point of taking a dancing flight into the air. His gestures bespeak enchantment. Even as the animals now talk, and as the earth yields milk and honey, so also something super natural sounds forth from him : he feels himself a god, he himself now walks about enchanted and elated even as the gods whom he saw walking about in his dreams. Man is no longer an artist, he has become a work of art : the artistic power of all nature here reveals itself in the tremors of drunkenness to the highest gratification of the Primordial Unity.3 (Nietzsche 27)

Nietzsche defines the Dionysian as the raw, impulsive creative energy that originates from nature itself. It is a pure expression crude epiphany, of art without reason. The Apollonian blinds humanity from pain and suffering through asceticism and intellect. Art is constructed and considered in the Apollonian mode, not experienced. Because music flows from a place beyond language, it is inherently Dionysian in nature. When Nietzsche called for music’s return to its Dionysian origins, he is calling for the return of man to his spiritual roots. Dionysus has been the heart and soul of music since its earliest days, but to fully understand the importance of the Dionysian in music, one must first learn about the God and his followers.

Illustration 1: Caravaggio, Michaelangelo. “Bacchus (1595).” Digital image. A rather sedate but alluring version of Bacchus/Dionysus.

Dionysus, also known as the Roman Bacchus, (see Illustration 1) is the Greek god of wine and the harvest, of divine madness, fertility, theater and religious ecstasy. He is a god of epiphany and revelation. He is the youngest of the Greek gods, and was very popular among those marginalized by Greek society: women, slaves and foreigners. He himself was portrayed as a foreigner or outsider, the primary focus of his rituals being a reenactment of his symbolic arrival or return from a distant place. He is usually portrayed as a beardless, sensuous, naked or half-naked androgynous young man. He carried the ithyphallic thyrsus, which is a staff made of fennel wood, with a pine-cone tip.4 He is a nature god, a lord of beast and the wild. While his mysteries were celebrated in reference to the grape harvest and other agricultural concerns, his mysteries were not celebrated in the fields or arbors like most fertility gods, rather the forests and hills outside the city were the home to his revelries.

The Dionysian Mysteries themselves were fertility rituals of ancient Greece and Rome in which revelers used intoxicants, dance, and music to induce a trance-like ecstatic state to remove inhibitions and social constraints so that they may enter a more natural or primal state of consciousness. The origins of what we know as theater today are in the cult of Dionysus. The word tragedy is from Greek tragōidia, from tragos, or “goat”, a creature sacred to Dionysus, and the word aeidein, “to sing”.5 The art of tragedy comes from the sacred hymns, or dithyrambs, to Dionysus that were performed during the Dionysian festivals. Thespis himself, the first recorded actor, was a well-known composer of dithyrambs. The art of theatricality was a large part of what the cult of Dionysus was about, with its melodramatic sensibilities and over the top histrionics. A Dionysian ritual was an act of sustained improvisation and spontaneous theater in situ.

Although there were some male devotees, the majority of the followers of Dionysus were women, called maenads or bacchae, who indulged in maniacal dancing to loud, cacophonous music played on drums, flutes, and bullroarers. They would dance through the forests of ancient Greece and Rome in great processions, called the thiasos (see Illustration 2), screaming and bellowing with divine madness, trying to achieve a state of “enthusiasmos”, or enthusiasm,6 where their souls would become momentarily freed from their earthly bodies and they would be able to commune with the god directly. That these women and their behavior were considered indecorous and unbecoming for a Greek woman was irrelevant. In the strict confines of Greek society, in particular Athenian society, women were afforded few liberties and even fewer opportunities at public life.

Illustration 2: Louvre K240, “The Procession of Dionysus,” digital image, Theoi Project, http://www.theoi.com/Gallery/K12.2B.html. Dionysos rides a panther accompanied by a castanet-playing Seilenos, a flute-playing Mainas and a Satyr boy (satyriskos). The gods carry human heads hung to sticks.

Religion was the one area women were free to participate.7 The cult of Dionysus gave these women a chance to revel in excess without scrutiny. In fact, many myths surrounding the maenads revolve around the often lethal punishment of men who attempt to deny them access to their god or who spy on or disrupt their ceremonies. These were not women to be trifled with. These rites would often culminate in a frenzy of violence and destruction, with the sacramental rending of a live bull by the mob with their bare hands, known as sparagmos, and the devouring its flesh raw, or omophagia. They even decapitated and tore the tragic musician Orpheus asunder when he refused their advances and requests that he entertain them.8 Orpheus, the son of Apollo, had rejected Dionysus and turned to a life of asceticism. In turning his back on life he was literally consumed by it in its most visceral form.

Wine, Women, and Song

There are reports of the initiations and rituals of the cult of Dionysus using wooden phalluses and orgies to accomplish their ecstatic goals9, but because of the secretive nature of the Mystery religions we have no way of knowing if these reports are anecdotal or not. There was certainly an erotic component to the worship of Dionysus, as one cannot have a religion founded on the principles of fertility and ecstasy without the erotic raising its head. One of the few records we have hinting at the initiation of women into the Dionysian cult is the frescoes of the”Villa dei Misteri” or Villa of the Mysteries, in Pompeii. These frescoes show the step by step process of a female initiate as she is stripped of her old self, exposed to the mysteries of the cult, and then reintroduced to the world as a full-fledged member.

The inclusion of Eros at the culmination of the series of images (see Illustration 3) is not a coincidence, nor is the bride-like appearance of the initiate.10 Dionysus was frequently portrayed as being the object of sexual desire and adoration for both female and male dedicants, and the concept of divine wedlock or the spiritual spouse rather than the hierogamous marriage between god and goddess that is often celebrated in fertility cults, illuminates the Dionysian belief in the bond between the mortal with the immortal. Unlike love gods like Aphrodite or Cupid, Dionysus does not inspire desire in mortals for each other, he inspires desire for himself. For his devotees, his sexual nature is a divine blessing and a sacrament.

Illustration 3: Fresco of Eros from the villa of the Mysteries near Pompeii. Digital image. Eros is represented at the culmination of the initiation.

The blessedness of eroticism aside, Dionysus is first and foremost the god of wine. He is a god of intoxication, the mystery of the grape transformed into a mind-altering substance as if by magic. Wine was important to Greek culture, as a commodity, as sustenance, and as part of their spiritual practices. While it is easy to define the Dionysian as being simply about sexual titillation robed in frivolous fertility ritual as well as an excuse to get drunk and act the fool, the “earthiness” inherit in the spirit of the cult is far deeper and more disturbing. We forget that at the core of wine production is the unlovely process of fermentation and rot. In her work Sexual Personae, Camille Paglia expresses the darker aspects of this Dionysian world versus the orderly perfection of the Apollonian:

Our focus on the pretty is an Apollonian strategy. The leaves and flowers, the birds, the hills are a patchwork pattern by which we map the known. What the West represses in its view of nature is the chthonian, which means ‘of the earth’–but earth’s bowels, not its surface. […] The Dionysian is no picnic. It is the chthonian realities which Apollo evades, the blind grinding of subterranean force, the long slow suck, the muck and ooze. It is the dehumanizing brutality of biology and geology, the Darwinian waste and bloodshed, the squalor and rot we must block from our consciousness to retain our Apollonian integrity as persons.11 (Paglia 40)

This is the cycle of life personified. The grapes are life transformed by death into a substance that transcends the properties of its former self. As the Roman empire took over the Greek, and Christianity came to the forefront, the Dionysian traditions were co-opted and warped to conform to the staid and Apollonian ideals of the church. The bare-chested, life-affirming wine god became the perpetually dying Christ, the ritualists became spectators, and dancing and rhythmic music were shunned as sinful vices that incited lust in the heart of man.

Points Between

Christianity carried over many of the symbols and aspects of the Dionysian rituals, but with a significant decline in decadence and celebration of many of the more chthonic traits of the the earlier practice. While wine and a half-naked young man with womanish qualities was present (see Illustration 4), the focus of Christianity on abnegation of pleasure and indulgence, and the obsession with physical and spiritual purity removed much of the Dionysian and shifted Western culture further into the grips of Nietszche’s rational Apollonian aesthetic. There were sputterings in the intervening centuries of Dionysian movements and moments, but the stranglehold of Christianity and its dim view of activities such as possession, intoxication, and eroticism, limited the function of ecstasy to the Christian mystics, who tended to turn the activity inward into a more private and individual practice.

Illustration 4: Correa, Juan. “Alegoría De La Eucaristía (1690).” Digital image. Christ depicted with Dionysian symbolism.

As the age of Romanticism began to blossom in the 18th and 19th centuries, art began to rediscover the values and aesthetics of the Classical world. Artists and musicians such as Paganini, Wagner, and Verdi embraced the Dionysian as part of their ethos. Franz Liszt was a Romantic Hungarian composer and piano virtuoso in the mid-19th century whose impassioned performances and brooding good looks generated the kind of hysteria the world would later see in 20th century rock fans. Known for his flamboyant and sexualized performances, his female fans were known to literally go into a state of uncontrolled frenzy and disinhibition known as “lisztomania”. The German poet Heinrich Heine described the fervor:

“When formerly I heard of the fainting spells which broke out in Germany and specially in Berlin, when Liszt showed himself there, I shrugged my shoulders pityingly and thought: quiet sabbatarian Germany does not wish to lose the opportunity of getting the little necessary exercise permitted it… In their case, thought I, it is a matter of the spectacle for the spectacle’s sake…Thus I explained this Lisztomania, and looked on it as a sign of the politically unfree conditions existing beyond the Rhine. Yet I was mistaken, after all, and I did not notice it until last week, at the Italian Opera House, where Liszt gave his first concert…This was truly no Germanically sentimental, sentimentalizing Berlinate audience, before which Liszt played, quite alone, or rather, accompanied solely by his genius. And yet, how convulsively his mere appearance affected them! How boisterous was the applause which rang to meet him!…[W]hat acclaim it was! A veritable insanity, one unheard of in the annals of furore!”12 (Savage 457-58)

This was not the only time this level of adoration had been cast upon a musician in history, but it was the beginning of a formula that would grow and replicate for years to come. On October 12, 1944, Frank Sinatra performed a series of short sets at New York’s Paramount theater. The plan was that fans would enter the theater, see one show, then would be rotated out for the next group of fans to come in. Because of Sinatra’s immense popularity with young teenage girls, this was seen as the only way to accommodate the near 35,000 fans waiting to see him that day. Unfortunately, the shrieking young women refused to surrender their seats. After the physical exhaustion of over 6 to 8 hours of show after show and the rising pressure of other fans standing outside all day in mounting frustration, chaos erupted. Thousands of crazed fans erupted into the streets of Times Square in a screaming wave of teenage hormones.13 Although the end result was fairly harmless and mostly seemed to serve as good PR for Sinatra, the archetype for the 20th century teen idol was born from the sexual frustrations of thousands of young women that day.

It is possible that a contributing factor to the resurgence of the Dionysian in the form of rock music is the women’s liberation movement of the 60s. Women in the first half of the 20th century and for many centuries before, lacked agency over their own lives. Often treated as property and not given full citizenship in many countries until the early 20th century, the state of women in the Western world was comparable to the conditions Athenian women lived under in ancient Greece.14 Kept from public life while sexually repressed and frustrated, the advent of readily available birth control and the sexual revolution of the late 60s afforded women new freedoms and opportunities for self-exploration. The swooning sexual hysteria of previous centuries finally had teeth, and like its Dionysian predecessor, it had a predilection for biting.

Enter the Rock Star

The archetype of the rock star of the modern age is usually portrayed as a charismatic young man, somewhat androgynous but still bristling with unquestionable male virility. He is often noted for his decadent lifestyle that includes overindulgence in drugs, alcohol, and sex. He is given divine qualities, people often speak of a performer as a “guitar god” or treat his every word or action (no matter how puerile) as a deep revelation from on high. Even in death he is given supernatural traits. Deceased rock stars such as Elvis and Kurt Cobain are rumored to still be alive and in hiding, putting them in the company of other invisible, unknowable, non-corporeal deities. The early demise of the members of the notorious “27 Club” seems to have elevated them to almost saint-like status among rock fans. Musicians such as Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Brian Jones all met their death at the age of 27. They will never grow old, never lose their potency, and will forever remain young, beautiful, and at their peak. Fans decorate their rooms with images of their idols like they are household gods, emulate their style, even go so far as to stalk them in real life. The devotion of the rock fan can be a fervor bordering on obsession, and manifests itself in very passionate ways.

Teen Hysteria

Although women are still rarely at the forefront of rock music, they have always been an indispensable part of its landscape. Much like the maenads of Dionysus, their revelries and worship are the primary pillars of the ecstatic practice, and their presence at a rock concert can set the tone for the entire proceeding. The most obvious role of women in rock is that of the teenage hysteric; as seen with Beatlemania (see Illustration 5), Justin Bieber fans, or any other of the multitude of teen heartthrobs that have washed over the public in the last 60 years. This frenzy of immature lust and devotion causes young girls and women to become disinhibited to the point of tears, screaming, tearing at their hair and clothing, a literal display of hysteria and madness brought on by nascent sexuality and over-stimulation.

Illustration 5: Daugherty, Bob. A tearful fan in Indianapolis pleads with a policeman to carry her fan button to Ringo. Digital image. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. http://newsinteractive.post-gazette.com/longform/stories/beatles1964/.

Each generation has had it’s own expression of the Dionysian young rock star and his throng of ecstatic followers, from the Beatles in the 60s, David Cassidy in the 70s, Duran Duran in the 80s, The Backstreet Boys in the 90s, and Justin Bieber and One Direction in the early 21st century. Record companies capitalize on this phenomena by marketing young, attractive teen heartthrobs with questionable musical talents. These young men are groomed, coached, polished and trained to perfection and serve their masters well until both they and their fans age out of the system.


A groupie is generally considered a devoted female fan of a band or musical performer who is usually more insistent on having direct contact with the band than a typical fan. Groupies are women who tend to follow their idols from place to place, attempting to develop a sexual, intimate, personal, or almost maternal connection with the band. Groupies came to the forefront in the sexually open atmosphere of the late 60s, and although the age of AIDS effectively ended the more carefree aspects of the sexual revolution, they still persist in the shadows of music. The groupie is often seen with a certain level of derision. She is treated as the hanger-on, the “comfort girl” and concubine to the band. These women have a reputation as being promiscuous and using their sexuality to climb the social ladder to achieve vicarious rock stardom, but most actual groupies claim their motives are far more esoteric and stem from a spiritual need to be close to their idols. Many groupies in the 60s and 70s became famous in their own right for their style and brazen sexuality. Women like The Plaster Casters, who gained notoriety for getting dozens of famous rock stars to let them take plaster casts of their erect penises. This was not just an act of raw vulgarity, it was a gesture of worship, creating an actual fetish of the male fertility god the rock star represents. This tendency toward converting idol worship into lust may seem crude to our modern sensibilities, however many groupies actually report a feeling of not only female empowerment but a genuine desire to commune with the spiritual when they are engaged with their heroes.

Pamela Des Barres, known then as Miss Pamela, is a famous groupie from the 60s and 70s. She has written several books on the subject and is considered by many to be the definitive expert on the groupie experience of that era. In her book I’m With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie, she emphasizes that the connection she felt to musicians transcended something as shallow or materialistic as simple “star fucking”: “I dig musicians, I feel they have the most to offer me mentally and emotionally because they think basically along the same lines that I do; extremely creative people. Music is Life. As Captain Beefheart once said ‘God is a perfect musical note.” 15 (Des Barres 155)

Her claim that “music is life” echos the sentiments of such illustrious company as Nietzsche16 and Beethoven17. In the darkened womb of the theater, music and the mystery of life become entwined in enthusiastic and erotic ways.

Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll

Rock music is rife with double entendre and overt expressions of vulgar sexuality. Controversial album covers, simulated sex acts on stage, songs being banned or censored for sexual content are all commonplace in rock music. From Elvis’ banned pelvic swivel to David Bowie simulating fellatio on his guitar player in concert to 2 Live Crew rapping “Me So Horny” to former child star Miley Cyrus’ questionably ephebophilic “Wrecking Ball” performance, rock music seems to serve to tap into our darkest sexual fears as a society. This attraction rock has to visceral sexual expression is not dissimilar to the often vulgar gyrations of fertility rites of the past, with the proud brandishing of carved phalluses, disinhibited ecstatic dancing, and representation of sexuality as a necessary biological drive to be brought to the light of day rather than hidden from polite society. The use of sexuality in rock culture, as it was in the era of the Dionysian cult, is not truly an act of “fertility”. That is, it is not intended to grow crops or ensure fecundity in cattle. Rather it is an expression of the life force, a conduit to spiritual and physical ecstasy.

Intoxication is considered almost a default setting for the rock star and their fans. It is not uncommon for the expectation of the audience to be that the musician will be performing under the influence, and in many cases the crowd themselves have spent a considerable amount of effort “pre-gaming” for the show. Many see this as enhancing the ecstatic experience and communion with the performers. Drug and alcohol use causes the participants to lose their inhibitions and achieve an almost out-of-body state. People will chase this state of frenzy to extremes, even to the point of death. Rock concerts are notorious for their abundance of bodily fluids. Urine, blood, and vomit are commonly part of the landscape. The frequently intoxicated denizens of the floor lose control over their bodily functions and inhibitions, contributing to the chthonic and earthy energy of the experience. While these contributions are not always pleasant, they definitely help to illustrate the insensate and depersonalized state many concert goers achieve.

Theater of the Senses

Fans of rock music attending a large concert are not treated the same as fans of classical music. There is no chatty cocktail hour before the show and a place to check your hat. Rather, rock fans are treated as a potential threat, herded through security checks and body or bag searches that violate their personal space. Turnstiles and switchbacks create a physical sense of disorientation and enforce the impression that you are being controlled and told where to go. Thuggish security guards are posted throughout the venue, metal barriers ensure you can not get too close to the object of your adoration, and stepping out of line will often result in swift and often violent action on the part of security. The progressive separation of the individual from their identity and autonomy over their physical being is only the beginning of their chthonic journey. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche describes how the Dionysian experience creates a kind of sparagmos of identity:

“Here for the first time the jubilation of nature achieves expression as art, here for the first time the tearing-apart of the principium individuationis becomes an artistic phenomenon. That repulsive witches’ brew of sensuality and cruelty was powerless here; the only reminder of it (in the way that medicines recall deadly poisons) is to be found in the strange mixture and duality in the affects of the Dionysiac enthusiasts, that phenomenon whereby pain awakens pleasure while rejoicing wrings cries of agony from the breast. From highest joy there comes a cry of horror or a yearning lament at some irredeemable loss. In those Greek festivals there erupts what one might call a sentimental tendency in nature, as if it had cause to sigh over its dismemberment into individuals.” 18 (Nietzsche 21)

To encounter the divine, the individual must travel to where the divine lies. This cannot be achieved without leaving something behind. By separating the individual from their body and their identity, the subject is primed for initiation into the subculture and the experience of that which exists outside oneself.

At this point, the process of deindividuation begins. Deindividuation is a mental state of decreased self-awareness causing impulsive and disinhibited behavior19. Anonymity and complete immersion in the collective identity within the rock audience environment triggers a loss of inhibition and willingness to participate in group activities that the individual would otherwise not engage in. During the concert, audiences often act in unison, clapping, singing, or chanting, either spontaneously or at the behest of the performers. This reinforces the sense of deindividuation and solidarity among fans in much the same way military chants and rhythmic actions can create a sense of a unified front. It has been demonstrated that choir performers synchronize heartbeats as they sing, and that rhythmic chanting can accomplish the same phenomena.20 As energy levels rise in the crowd, this can cause the audience to begin acting as a swarm, frequently progressing to expressions of mass hysteria, mob violence, or uninhibited acts of public sexuality. While these acts seem unsettling, they are part of the excitatory and ecstatic experience, and there are more socially positive aspects to the experience as well.

For many young fans who feel marginalized by society, either due to race, gender, sexual orientation, or just simply being considered creative or eccentric, this sense of oneness with “the Other” can be liberating. Rock music, not unlike the Dionysian cult, has a reputation for embracing the outsider. In the critically acclaimed off-Broadway rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch21, Hedwig is an East German genderqueer glam rock star who is telling her life’s story to the audience. At the close of the show, Hedwig sings the song “Midnight Radio”, a virtual love song to the so-called “misfits and losers” and who find a spiritual center in the music of “strange rock and rollers”. The song ends with Hedwig, the embodiment of the androgynous, outsider, rock star archetype, passionately pleading for the crowd to “lift up their hands” as if in invocation or prayer to something so large it has become the theater space itself. This is a prime illustration of the rock concert as a transformative, unified, ecstatic experience that so many people have undergone. Esteemed mythologist Joseph Campbell discussed his personal encounter with this sense of spiritual unity at a Grateful Dead concert, even going so far as to directly compare it to a Dionysian rite:

“The Deadheads are doing the dance of life and this I would say, is the answer to the atom bomb. I had a marvelous experience two nights ago. I was invited to a rock concert. ( laughter in the audience) I’d never seen one. This was a big hall in Berkeley and the rock group were the Grateful Dead, whose name, by the way, is from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. And these are very sophisticated boys. This was news to me. Rock Music has never seemed that interesting to me. It’s very simple and the beat is the same old thing. But when you see a room with 8000 young people for five hours going through it to the beat of these boys … The genius of these musicians- these three guitars and two wild drummers in the back… The central guitar, Bob Weir, just controls this crowd and when you see 8000 kids all going up in the air together… Listen, this is powerful stuff ! And what is it ? The first thing I thought of was the Dionysian festivals, of course. This energy and these terrific instruments with electric things that zoom in… This is more than music. It turns something on in here (the heart?). And what it turns on is life energy. This is Dionysus talking through these kids. Now I’ ve seen similar manifestations, but nothing as innocent as what I saw with this bunch. This was sheer innocence. And when the great beam of light would go over the crowd you’ d see these marvelous young faces in sheer rapture- for five hours ! Packed together like sardines! Eight thousand of them ! Then there was an opening in the back with a series of panel windows and you look out and there’s a whole bunch in another hall, dancing crazy. This is a wonderful fervent loss of self in the larger self of a homogeneous community. This is what it is all about ! It reminded me of Russian Easter. Down in New York we have a big Russian Cathedral. You go there on Russian Easter at midnight and you hear Kristos anesti ! Christ is Risen ! Christ is Risen ! It’s almost as good as a rock concert. (laughter) It has the same kind of life feel. When I was in Mexico City at the Cathedral of the Virgin of Guadeloupe, there it was again. In India, in Puri, at the temple of the Jagannath- that means the lord of the Moving World- the same damn thing again. It doesn’t matter what the name of the God is, or whether its a rock group or a clergy. It’s somehow hitting that chord of realization of the unity of God in you all, that’s a terrific thing and it just blows the rest away.”22 (Richardson 144)

This description of the rapture of the crowd and the similarities to the diverse religious rites he has witnessed first hand goes along way to reinforce the idea that the rock concert fulfills a certain niche in the human psyche. There is a need for this sense of unity in the divine, not just in the inhibitory practices of solitary prayer and meditation, but in excitatory and participatory acts with our peers and cohorts. To experience the Dionysian is to experience not the god within, but the god without.

The environment of the theater space itself and how the crowd is managed are part of this exterior experience. Minimal concern for audience’s comfort on the part of the theater staff and the physical demands of the concert going experience contribute to an externalizing of the individual’s physical awareness and can lead to an altered state of consciousness. The endurance required to stand for hours on end, dehydration, overheating, deprivation of privacy and physical personal space, over-stimulation from the barrage of lighting effects, extreme noise, and non-stop close physical contact with the other participants contribute to a heightened and unavoidable state of awareness of the subject’s surroundings. Again, the loss of autonomy over one’s own body forces the individual to stand outside oneself, a literal demonstration of “ekstasis” the Greek origins of the word ecstasy. Once the audience has been stripped of their identity and pulled out of their interior world into a shared consciousness outside of themselves, the music and scenography come in to seal the unspoken spiritual covenant between audience members and performers.

By far the most important element at a rock concert is the music. The power of music to effect the human body physically is well known to anyone who has attended a live music event. However, how deep this ability goes might surprise your average rock fan. Entrainment is the use of either audio or visual stimuli to trigger the synchronization of the two hemispheres of the brain. This can have surprising effects on the consciousness and emotions in the subject. The efficacy of this practice is still being debated in the scientific community, but anecdotal evidence and early research suggests that the potential for brainwave entrainment by either intentional or accidental means is very real, and can at least contribute to altered states of consciousness. Many researchers have studied the effects of “rhythmic driving”, or the effects of rhythmic beats or noise on human physiology, and have discovered that these stimuli have a profound effect on even the most regulated systems in our bodies23. The heart rate will synchronize with the beat, respiration changes, brainwaves alter, and hormone levels will rise and fall. One of the most intriguing results of this is the synchronization of brainwaves between audience members and performers. Studies have shown that musicians who are performing together display a synchronization of brainwaves between brains, even if they are playing different notes.24 The same evidence for changes in the human brain has been seen in people exposed to repetitive visual stimuli as well, such as stroboscopic lighting

The use of stroboscopic lighting can not only create an altered sense of space and disorientation, but it can also have an effect on the brain itself. Strobe lights have been known to cause critical and sometimes serious changes in the human brain. Certain frequencies of strobing lights can trigger epileptic seizures, known as photosensitive epilepsy (PSE), although for most healthy adults the risk of this is minimal. Some people who experience PSE have been found to self-induce these seizures for the purposes of triggering trance-like states,25 however stimulation to the point of seizure is not always necessary when using light to alter brainwaves. In the 1950s, artist and writer Brion Gysin invented a psychedelic device called a Dreamachine.26 The Dreamachine is designed to deliver pulses of light at a constant frequency between 8 and 13 pulses per second. Ostensibly, this corresponds to alpha waves in the brain, and can create at state of euphoria and hallucination in the user. Similar phenomena occur in a concert environment that employs bright, flashing, or dramatic lighting. Using this and other methods of brainwave entrainment can, at the very least, alter and distort the perceptions of reality, and at the more extreme end of the spectrum it can encourage a trance-like state in susceptible or already intoxicated fans.

This potent mixture of pain, physical depletion, hyper-stimulation, and endurance combined with the subtle physiological changes the theater environment cause within the audience can lead to a state comparable to the excitatory trance states seen in other contemporary ecstasy and possession traditions such as Vodou or the pierced practitioners at Hindu’s Thaipusam festival. The audience experiences screaming, cheering, bellowing, involuntary dancing, erotic excitation, and complete immersion in the moment. By throwing in the driving rhythms and blinding spectacle of the rock concert itself, the audience is soon transformed into a reveling mob, driven by primal instinct and a spiritual hive mind. The rock star has fulfilled his role as godhead and the audience becomes the Dionysian thiasos, locked together in ecstatic celebration.

Finally, the media image of the rock star him or herself as Dionysian figure is incontrovertible (see Illustration 6). Rock stars are often photographed in a Dionysian context, with scantily clad women hanging off their shoulders, a bottle in one hand, guitar in the other. Often, prodigious drug and alcohol use is expected to be part of the public persona of the rock star. The body of work of musicians who continue to perform after going into recovery is often considered inferior by fans to the work done before the artist “cleaned up”, as the state of continuous intoxication is seen as a state of divine madness, a state of perpetual spiritual epiphany and ecstasy. To deviate from these Dionysian ideals of promiscuous sex, hard living, and self-annihilation is to “sell out” and betray the unspoken doctrine of the cult. Dionysian imagery and behavior is not only expected on stage, but creeps into the real lives of the performers. While these behaviors have their origins in life affirmation, their over-indulgence frequently leads to a decadent and unproductive lifestyle. This lifestyle often proves to be ultimately self-destructive, and a premature death locks the rock star into a state of youthful immortality, forever beautiful, eternally enshrined with the decadent gods he served in life.

Illustration : Promotional photo of Jim Morrison in 1967. Digital image. Bio. http://www.biography.com/people/jim-morrison-9415576. Jim Morrison is often used as an example of the Dionysian rock star.

The replication of ecstatic religious experience at the modern rock concert through the use of intoxication, eroticism, and hyper-stimulation, as well as the depersonalization and deindividuation of the audience members reinforces the sense of spiritual cohesion and group identity for the fans. This initiates the fan into the subculture and releases them to the world transformed. Although it may not be an ecstasy cult in name, it is by its nature and its practice an extension of the decadent and chthonic revelries dedicated to Dionysus in ancient Greece and Rome.



1Friedrich Nietzsche, Anthony M. Ludovici, Ecce Homo, Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2004, 73.

2Robert Jourdain, Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imagination, (New York: Harper Perennial, 1997), 305.

3 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, New York: Vintage Books Knopf, Div. of Random House, 1967, 27

4 Walter F. Otto, Dionysus, Myth and Cult, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1965, 85.

5Merriam-Webster., Accessed May 31, 2015, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/tragedy.

6 Peter Hoyle, Delphi, London: Cassell, 1967, 76.

7 Sarah B. Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity, New York: Schocken Books, 1975, 87-88.

8Ernest L. Abel, Intoxication in Mythology: A Worldwide Dictionary of Gods, Rites, Intoxicants and Places, Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2006, 127-28.

9 B. Z. Goldberg, The Sacred Fire; the Story of Sex in Religion, New York: H. Liveright, 1930, 179-84.

10James W. Jackson, “Villa of the Mysteries,” Old Stones: The Monuments of Art History, http://www.art-and-archaeology.com/timelines/rome/empire/vm/villaofthemysteries.html.

11 Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990, 40.

12 Oscar G. Sonneck, “Heinrich Heine’s Musical Feuilletons,” Musical Quarterly The Musical Quarterly VIII, no. 2 (1922): 457-58.

13Jon Savage, “The Columbus Day Riot: Frank Sinatra Is Pop’s First Star,” The Guardian (London), June 10, 2011.

14 Pomeroy, 87-88.

15Pamela Des Barres, I’m with the Band Confessions of a Groupie, Chicago, IL: Chicago Review Press, 2005, 155.

16Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, and R. J. Hollingdale, Twilight of the Idols ; And, the Anti-Christ, London, England: Penguin Books, 1990, 5. “Ohne Musik wäre das Leben ein Irrthum. Der Deutsche denkt sich selbst Gott liedersingend.”

17 “Goethe’s Correspondence with a Child,” Bettina Von Arnim to Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, May 28, 1810. “Music is indeed the mediator between the spiritual and sensual life.” Attributed to Beethoven by von Arnim.

18 Nietzsche, 21.

19 Ed Diener, Rob Lusk, Darlene Defour, and Robert Flax, “Deindividuation: Effects of Group Size, Density, Number of Observers, and Group Member Similarity on Self-consciousness and Disinhibited Behavior,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 39, no. 3 (1980): 449-59.

20Björn Vickhoff, Helge Malmgren, Rickard Åström, Gunnar Nyberg, Seth-Reino Ekström, Mathias Engwall, Johan Snygg, Michael Nilsson, and Rebecka Jörnsten, “Music Structure Determines Heart Rate Variability of Singers,” Frontiers in Psychology 4 (July 9, 2013): 334.

21Hedwig and the Angry Inch, By John Cameron. Mitchell, Directed by John Cameron Mitchell, Performed by John Cameron. Mitchell, United States: Fine Line Features, 2001, DVD.

22 Peter Richardson, No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead, 144.

23 Robin Sylvan, Traces of the Spirit: The Religious Dimensions of Popular Music, New York: New York University Press, 2002, 11.

24 Ulman Lindenberger, Shu-Chen Li, Walter Gruber, and Viktor Müller, “Brains Swinging in Concert: Cortical Phase Synchronization While Playing Guitar,” BMC Neuroscience 10, no. 1 (2009): 22.

25Beng-Yeong Ng, “Psychiatric Aspects of Self-induced Epileptic Seizures,” Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry 36, no. 4 (2002): 534-43.

26Paul Cecil, Flickers of the Dreamachine, Hove: Codex, 1996.

One Nation, Under Gods: The Invisible World of Non-Monotheists in America

Our nation prides itself on what we consider our vanguard attitudes toward religious freedom. It was the reason Plymouth colony was founded. It is the very first amendment of the U.S. constitution.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. (U.S. Const. amend. I)

It is a subject that has been publicly debated in minute detail for the entire duration of our nation’s history. It is part of our identity, part of where we come from and, hopefully, part of our future. That Christians in this country have freedom of religion can not be seriously disputed. In spite of the efforts of some right-wing conservative Christian groups to assert that their religious rights are being imposed on by the institution of marriage equality or the decisions other Americans make with their bodies, no one is preventing them from worshiping as they choose. Judaism and Islam, although sometimes challenged with bigotry and social prejudice, are at the very least recognized by both government and society as legitimate world religions and are protected as well due to their high visibility in our culture. There is an awareness of their existence, and although there may not be a universal harmony and acceptance, persecution of Jews and Muslims is most often openly frowned upon in our society. The problems of religious intolerance and discrimination become far more acute, however, when we leave the familiar confines of Monotheism and enter the world of the non-Monotheist.
In this paper, we will define any religion that believes in or worships multiple deities or spirits a non-Monotheistic religion. This will include practices such as Paganism, Hinduism, Spiritualism, Native American religions, and ethnic and folk religions such as Vodou or Shinto. While these groups are very different in origin, practice, and belief, they all share a similar stigma in our society as marginalized groups, often falsely associated with cult activity or distasteful behavior, such as accusations of ritualistic abuse, animal or human sacrifice, or what is commonly known as “brainwashing”.
Many of these forms of non-Monotheism are not new inventions or are based on older traditions. Hinduism is the predominant religion of India, and with its gods by the thousand it is the oldest extant organized religion in the world. In fact, it predates monotheistic Zoroastrianism by almost 2,000 years. For much of early human history, non-Monotheism or Animistic religions in one form or another were the default. However, our perceived national foundation in Monotheism, in particular Christianity, has left much of our culture blind to the needs of those who follow a non-Monotheistic path. They are often “shoehorned” into pre-existing systems built on Christian scaffolding, are told they need to adapt their beliefs to the majority, or are ignored completely as being too few to consider.
In planning this paper, we were asked to discuss our research topics with our classmates. One of my classmates seemed confused as to why I saw issues such as the denial of access to Pagan chaplains in prison a problem. “Maybe it’s just not cost effective for such a small group”, he said. I was puzzled by this confusion, because what better defines the term “minority” than a small group in a sea of millions? This demonstrates the fact that most Americans have some very distressing ideas about non-Monotheists in this country, the first being that they are a fringe minority and do not merit consideration. This lack of visibility directly leads to dire misconceptions and gross misrepresentations in the media and society as a whole. Because these religions are so badly misunderstood, many adherents avoid public identification with their religion, for fear of derision or persecution at school, at work, or in social circles. All of these factors perpetuate the cycle of neglect and ignorance that is damaging to the individual and has become the hallmark of how non-Monotheism is treated in contemporary American society.
Minority Reports
For most non-Monotheists, their religion is an anomaly, something society expects them to keep hidden or to be diminished as the “other.” There are reasons non-Monotheists often wistfully joke about being “in the broom closet.” The ASARB U.S. Religion Census is a very comprehensive study done of the religious landscape of America, however with the exception of Hinduism and Shintoism, it almost completely ignores the majority of non-Monotheist groups. Were these groups deliberately excluded? I contacted the head of Data Collection for ASARB to ask him how they collected this information:
We proactively seek information on groups we’ve heard about, and we solicit information about additional groups. We especially concentrate on larger groups, since they are both more likely to have the resources to provide information directly AND by definition will include more people.
No group that has supplied data has ever been excluded, at least not since the 1990 report when I began managing the data; and we’ve no records of anyone being excluded before. Dale E Jones (personal communication, July 27, 2014)

This indicates that there is no specific effort to exclude these groups, they just are not on society’s radar. The emphasis on the concept of “larger groups” being easier to count also points towards the passive, implied supremacy of the dominant Monotheistic religions maintaining their stranglehold on religious visibility on our country. To look at the ASARB data and assume it was an all-encompassing and completely accurate accounting of religion in the U.S. would lead one to assume that this truly is a non-problem, that almost 2 million Americans simply do not exist.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census Self-Described Religious Identification of Adult Population, the combined adherents of non-Monotheistic traditions numbered well over 1.8 million (U.S. Census, 2010). That is more than Buddhism, Islam, or Judaism. While each of the groups we have counted as non-Monotheistic (Hinduism, Native American, Wiccan, Pagan, and Spiritualist, specifically) are vastly different in practice and belief, they share the distinction of all being groups that are often socially and politically viewed with a certain snide dismissal in our culture as fringe cults stocked with loonies, hippies, or con artists. Part of this issue is the fact that most statisticians completely ignore these groups in favor of larger, more “important” groups.
In surveys, forms, and legal documents, most non-Monotheists are resigned to having to check the “other” box with no chance to assert or clarify their belief system. This leaves them in a demographic limbo, uncounted and often undifferentiated from Atheists, Agnostics, and other humanistic oriented belief systems. This attitude of all beliefs not of the Judeo-Christian world being lumped together under an anonymous non-religion is a demonstration of the tacit contempt our culture has for religions that are so different from the conventional norm. To say that being a non-Monotheist is the same as being a non-believer degrades and demeans the non-Monotheist’s spirituality in a fundamental way.
In most of the country, non-Monotheists tend to exist in solitude or, if they are lucky, in small communities. According to the U.S. Religion Census study, Hindus in San Jose are 2,383 per 100,000 citizens, and so have the advantage of living in a thriving community of people who share their faith and can practice together (ASARB, 2010). They are also fortunate that because of their numbers, they are not strangers in their own city. Even if you are not Hindu, if you live in San Jose, odds are you know someone who is. It is interesting to note, that although Hinduism is treated as a fringe religion in this country, according to Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life it is the 3rd largest religion in the world at 1 billion adherents globally, just behind Christianity at 2.2 billion and Islam at 1.6 billion (Pew 2012). As for the other groups discussed in this paper? They were listed in this report under “Other Religions” along with the Montheistic religions like Baha’i, Zoroastrianism, and Sikhism, as well as questionably religious organizations like Scientology, if they were counted at all.
Similarly, the greater Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area is known in the Pagan and Wiccan community as “Paganistan” for its large and thriving New Age, Pagan, Wiccan, and non-Monotheist population (Clifton 2005). New Age and Pagan oriented businesses such as the New Age publisher Llewellyn are located in the Twin Cities area, which has created a Pagan-friendly employment and social environment for many people. The Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area was also the geographical center for the legal fight Circle Sanctuary vs. Nicholson (District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin January, 2007), which fought for, and eventually won, the right for Pagan U.S. war veterans to have Pagan symbols on their headstones. This cause was certainly aided by the ability of groups to organize and interact openly and with the support of their immediate community. There is strength in numbers, and having a consolidated hub of like-minded individuals gives them the social, psychological, and financial clout to accomplish what needs to be done.
Only Witches and Weirdos
There is a certain stigma associated with the non-Monotheist community. They are portrayed in the media as being superstitious, silly, juvenile, or even sinister and malicious. Non-Monotheism is treated as if it is the cultural equivalent of a teenage “phase,” and that if we ignore it it will “go away.” American society does not see the need to take these religions seriously, because in the collective mind of America they are not real religions. These are clearly the beliefs of the unbalanced airhead, the attention-seeker, the disenfranchised loner. These are seen as faiths that one has defaulted to, either by disillusionment with Christianity or because the individual just has not had their moment of spiritual epiphany that leads them back to the Christian god. I have been asked by many a Christian what it was that made me turn away from God, to which I can only reply that I have not turned away from God, rather I have turned toward many. There is this idea that since Christianity is the default in our culture, those who choose a divergent path must fit into that paradigm somehow, even if it is in the role of a disgruntled betrayer, Judas. The false depiction of Pagans and Wiccans as Satanists has only served to fuel this stigma, sometimes to the point of violence. Kenny Smith described the attempts of a small Wiccan organization to gain acceptance in the American South in his article “You’ve Been Wonderful Neighbors”: Key Factors in the Successful Integration of a Wiccan Coven into a Suburban Community in the Southeastern United States (2008):

Ravenwood members experienced a wide range of similarly unfortunate incidents, including smoke bombs lobbed through windows, physical assaults and beatings, and so many broken windows and doors that the installation of bullet-proof glass was required. Members were shot at, pelted with stones, and verbally harassed with slogans such as, “Kill the witch.” (p. 107)

This “witch burning” scenario is at the heart of why many Wiccans and Pagans remain publicly hidden in the 21st century. Depending on where you live, declaring your religious affiliation with one of these groups runs the very real risk of violent reprisals or even death threats in this country. In a historical context, accusations of witchcraft have been used to silence people, especially women, for centuries., and it still has a chilling effect today. In a bizarre example of how damaging accusations of witchcraft can be to a woman’s public persona, right-wing Evangelical Senatorial candidate Christine O’Donnell had to specifically refute her own previous claims that she had dabbled in witchcraft by producing a campaign ad during her run for Senate in 2010 stating she was not a witch, but a good Christian woman with good Christian values. She still lost the election, and was a subject of ridicule online for months to follow.
Hindu groups such as International Society for Krishna Consciousness, also know as the Hare Krishnas, are often depicted as harmful cults. While there have been dangerous or malignant cults with in the ranks of Hinduism, this is true of any religion, regardless of how many gods it contains. Outside of what could be considered “mainstream” Hinduism, which would be impossible to define in any certain terms to begin with, there are many groups that lean toward concepts such as communal living, intense hours spent meditating, and the surrendering of material goods. These are held up as examples of cult activity by the media, when in reality they are simply a different dynamic than what our Western capitalist Christian country considers normal. Because of its ways seemed exotic and inscrutable to the British Colonialists during the 19th century, Hindu iconography quickly became a cheap fashion statement co-opted by stylish Victorian trend-setters with little to no understanding of the profound symbolism contained within. This cultural appropriation persists to this day, with chain “fitness” yoga studios that dilute the spiritual meaning behind the practice replaced with the pursuit of firmer thighs, or pop stars wearing saris, bindis or tilaka onstage, yet showing no understanding of what these adornments symbolize.
Vodou, or Voodoo, is the religion practiced in Haiti based in part on the traditional religions carried with African slaves to the New World. It has a fearsome image associated only with malicious magic spells and zombification, in spite of the fact that zombies in any form have nothing to do with the practices of Vodou. Likewise, other ethnic or folk religions of the African diaspora, such as Santeria, Candomblé, and Obeah are equally misunderstood and maligned. Films as diverse as Disney’s The Princess and the Frog (2009) or the horror film The Believers (1987) exemplify the image of the Vodou or Santeria practitioner as a malevolent and murderous boogeyman of great destructive power. Not only does this expose the inherent religious prejudice against these beliefs, it also shows a complicit racism hidden within the folds of this religious prejudice. These were the syncretic religions of the slaves brought to the New World from Africa, and therefore their frenzied ecstatic rituals and belief in sympathetic magic was something truly fearsome and Satanic to the European Christian slave owner. When you believe the people you oppress are invested with the ability to strike back from a distance, you do everything you can to demonize and exorcise that power. When Haiti was devastated by a earthquake in January 2010, televangelist Pat Robertson claimed it was because the Christian god was angry for Haiti making a “pact with the devil”:
And, you know, Kristi, something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, “We will serve you if you will get us free from the French.” True story. And so, the devil said,

“OK, it’s a deal.”
And they kicked the French out. You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other. Desperately poor. (Robertson 2010)

Mr. Robertson’s poorly constructed attempt to equate the 1791 Haitian Slave Rebellion led by a Vodou priest named Dutty Boukman with a “pact with the devil” shows how deeply ingrained this fear of an exotic god empowering the powerless is in the minds of many Monotheists.
And It Harm None…
So what harm is in the marginalization of the non-Monotheist in American society? To begin with, the very fact that we are having to discuss these groups as a single, conglomerated entity in need of attention speaks to the need for better demographics and understanding. The only thing these groups as religions share is the tenuous and superficial connection of being non-Monotheistic. Even within the groups themselves there is daunting level of diversity. A famous Hindu teacher, Sri Ramakrishna, once said, “There can be as many Hindu Gods as there are devotees to suit the moods, feelings, emotions and social backgrounds of the devotees.” Within the Pagan community the variety is comparably vast. A Wiccan is not the same as a Reconstructionist which is not the same as a Heathen which is not the same as a Druid. To compare one to another is like comparing a Catholic to a Mormon. Christianity frequently rears its head in many of these religions as well, with syncretic or melded systems like Christian Spiritualists or Christo-Pagans. Many of the Native American and Ethnic religions, such as Santeria, combine Christianity with their traditional beliefs, creating a system that is not wholly Monotheistic, nor Polytheistic, but something in between. While all of this seems daunting to consider from a census point of view, it is crucial from a societal perspective for us to realize that just because we have seen a “witch” on Buffy the Vampire Slayer does not mean we know what a Pagan is.
On large reservations, Native Americans are able to practice their traditional religion together, but it has only been since the passing of the Federal American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) in 1978 that they have been able to do so freely. Even in the present day, many Native Americans struggle for access to sacred lands, sacred objects, and the ability of practice their religion without interference. Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming is a site sacred to several Native American tribes, including the Lakota, Kiowa, and Cheyenne. Climbing the tower is considered a desecration by the tribes, but the U.S. government has only asked that climbers voluntarily refrain from climbing the tower in June, when most of the tribe’s sacred ceremonies are performed. In spite of this rather paltry compromise, climbers still continue to defy the request.
I was recently personally involved in a situation where a friend discovered numerous very sacred Ute and Shoshone artifacts while clearing out his family’s estate in Colorado, including several items that turned out to be medicine man paraphernalia. As he knew the items were purchased illegally, most likely from thieves taking advantage of his elderly and wealthy mother, I agreed to help him track down the rightful tribes to return the artifacts. I contacted tribal leaders and verified the authenticity of the items, only to have my friend’s brother swoop in at the last minute and refuse to part with the items. He claimed that the artifacts were worth a large sum of money, and that if the tribes wanted them returned they would have to pay for them. Although my friend argued vehemently against this, in the end the tribes could not pay the insulting amounts of money the brother expected, he refused to back down, and the only items returned were those that contained eagle feathers, as federal law prohibits the possession of eagle feathers to anyone who is not an American Indian tribal member. It was crushing to see first hand the level of greed and complete lack of consideration given to something so sacred to a group of people.
In many Native American religious traditions, the separation of the spiritual world and what many Monotheistic Americans consider the “real world” is non-existent. What happens to the body, happens to the spirit, and vice versa. Native American children in public schools are often disciplined in harsh ways according to their cultural standards. Their religion considers this damaging to the child’s spirit, which in turn can create a physical or mental illness brought on by a psychic imbalance. The American public school system is not prepared to change its way of dealing with Native American children, and the outcome of these methods can be incredibly devastating to the child. A shocking example of the dire harm that can be caused by a lack of respect or understanding of non-Monotheistic religions comes from Carol Locust’s paper, Wounding the Spirit: Discrimination and Traditional American Indian Belief Systems (1988). In this article, she described exactly how personally destructive society’s ignorance can be:
Indian tribes tend to allow each person his or her harmony without forcing absolute conformity to all cultural standards. This custom allows the individuals who are less capable mentally to find a meaningful place in their society in simple physical tasks, such as wood-gathering. A beautiful Hopi man once wept when he recounted the story of his friend “Bear,” a big, loving, mentally retarded boy who was the village water carrier. The Bureau of Indian Affairs social worker insisted that Bear go to a school in the city. Bear went, but he was terribly homesick and became violent. He spent the next twenty years in the state hospital for the criminally insane and then returned to his village to die. (p. 322)

The heartbreak of this story is that had the young man been left to his own devices, his spirit might have thrived, and he might have survived. The intervention of what the social worker viewed as being “best for him” by the social worker’s cultural standards shows the levels of impersonal indifference to the spiritual needs of the Native American. We dismiss this as being irrelevant; of course he should go to school, why should they be any different than the rest of us? What this ignores is how completely inseparable the Native American spiritual perspective is from their world view. To ignore their cultural needs is to ignore their spiritual needs. The body can not be removed from the spirit, or both will die.
As we were reviewing our oral presentations with our classmates, one of my classmates who has worked on the Lummi reservation recounted a story that was similar to other stories I had heard of Native American children experiencing a loss in their family and then being haunted by their deceased relative in a phenomenon known as “ghost sickness.” This condition can manifest itself in very real and frightening ways, with digestive problems, lethargy, anxiety, nightmares, fainting, and profound depression. My classmate stated that the Lummi child was mocked by her teacher when she raised concerns about her own well-being after experiencing a loss in the family, and the teacher actually laughed at her in front of the entire class. Not only does this clearly illustrate the level of disdain with which many people approach non-Monotheistic religions and dismiss it as superstitious twaddle, this also demonstrates how dangerous it can be to do so. This young child has had her trust broken, why would she ever confide in her teacher again?
At the heart of the denial of non-Monotheists of their share of the American Pie lies fear. Upon reflection, who do we consider the primary adherents of these religions? The stereotypical Spiritualist, Wiccan or Pagan is almost always portrayed as a liberal, feminist woman. The image of the practitioner of Vodou or Santeria is Hispanic or African diaspora. Hindus lived in India under the thumb of British colonial rule until the early 20th century. Similarly, Native Americans were exterminated and oppressed for centuries in America’s own colonial meat grinder. What all of these groups have in common is a distinct lack of prominent privileged, white, male presence. These are the groups that have historically been converted, persecuted, and oppressed, and had Christianity used as a justification and a means to steal their wealth, property, and power. It is deeply embedded in our culture to suppress these individuals, to keep them from amassing a positive presence in our society, and to use force when scorn is no longer effective.
These groups are kept invisible by a systemic lack of effort by governing bodies to recognize and sanction their existence, by society’s reinforced negative stereotyping of them, and by all of these factors chipping away at the identity and cohesion of both group and individual. Until these groups are given equal consideration by the establishment in our society, until they have a positive voice in our communities and media, there can be no true religious equality in America.
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Clifton, C. (2006). Her hidden children: The rise of Wicca and paganism in America. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.
Jensen, G. F., & Thompson, A. (2008). “Out of the broom closet”: The social ecology of American Wicca. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 47(4), 753-766. .
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