Religious right wingers blame Jared Loughner's actions on atheism and occultism
Diane Vera printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Tue Jan 18, 2011 at 07:50:48 PM EST
Various religious right wingers have blamed the Tuscon shootout on Jared Loughner's atheism and/or a highly questionable perception that he has dabbled in the occult.

In  New Theory for Tucson Tragedy: Blame the Atheists by Lauri Lebo, Religion Dispatches, January 11, 2011, the apparently-fake "ex-terrorist" Walid Shoebat is quoted as making over-the-top claims that atheism inherently leads to murder.  A somewhat less fevered version of this same claim has been made on the Human Events site (in "Loughner's Nihilism," January 17, 2011) by Gary Bauer.

Loughner's alleged "occult" connection is based on the New York Daily News story Frightening, twisted shrine in Arizona killer Jared Lee Loughner's yard by Matthew Lysiak and Lukas I. Alpert, January 10, 2010.  As one can easily see by Googling "Loughner occult," lots and lots of right wingers have had a field day with this.

In the New York Daily News story, the first several paragraphs claim:

A sinister shrine reveals a chilling occult dimension in the mind of the deranged gunman accused of shooting a member of Congress and 19 others.

Hidden within a camouflage tent behind Jared Lee Loughner's home sits an alarming altar with a skull sitting atop a pot filled with shriveled oranges.

A row of ceremonial candles and a bag of potting soil lay nearby, photos reveal.

Actually, the accompanying photo shows the bag of potting soil lying directly on the alleged "altar."  Not exactly standard alter decor in any tradition that I am aware of.

The Daily News story goes on to say:

Experts on Sunday said the elements are featured in the ceremonies of a number of occult groups.

The alleged "experts" are not named, nor are we told their qualifications -- which is rather disappointing.  I didn't think the Daily News's journalistic standards were quite that bad.

I spend some time reading the many comments on this story, though I didn't have time to read all of them.  The majority of commenters focussed not on the story itself but on an accompanying poll about gun control.

Among those who did comment on the story itself, at least several commenters accepted the "occult/shrine/altar" claim at face value.  Some of these people jumped to the conclusion that "occult" meant "Wiccan," while others jumped to the conclusion that "occult" meant "Satanist."  In either case, the commenters invariably drew the further conclusion that Loughner must therefore be a liberal, leftist, and/or Democrat.  Most likely these commenters were, themselves, right wingers.

Other commenters pooh-poohed the idea that photo showed a "shrine" of any kind, pointing out that the "altar" was unkempt and looked like just a pile of leftover Halloween decorations and assorted trash.

But another commenter, Katarina, wrote at 8:15 AM on January 10:

If you were allowed to do a random check of apartments in Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx, or any neighborhood where there is a heavy West Indian and Brazilian population you will see 'shrines' like this in just about every home. Go find a botanica in the same neighborhoods, walk inside and you will see the same items, skulls, candles, oils, crushed egg shells, powders, potions etc. This is part of their culture. If you went to the same ethnic neighborhoods in FL you would even find some of this stuff in the large popular super markets that are in these same neighborhoods. This stuff is spilling over into the American culture and I guess this guy thinks voodoo queen Marie Laveau is speaking to him from beyond the grave!

My response:  Perhaps many of the "altar" items are commonplace, but the unkempt nature of the alleged altar probably isn't.

Nevertheless, Katarina does make the important point that the "altar" items are indeed commonplace -- and a part of known traditions which have nothing to do with murder.  There is no reason to see the "altar" items as "chilling," or as having anything to do with the motives for the mass murder.

In a USA Today story, Did Jared Loughner have religious delusions, occult shrine?, also published on January 10, 2011, a Wiccan explains why the alleged "altar" couldn't possibly be a Wiccan altar.

On the Pagan blog Wild Hunt, in a post titled Going For the "Occult" Angle in Tucson Shooting by Jason Pitzi-Waters remarks:

Of course neither the Daily News journalists, nor the unnamed "experts" consider the possibility that the altar has no formal occult meaning. That it could be a product of his imagination, a manifestation of his distress, or playful seasonal potpourri left to rot as his mind deteriorated.

He then alludes to the Mexican Day of the Dead observances, involving fruit and candy skulls, that are commonplace in some parts of the southwestern U.S. including parts of Arizona.  He also voices concern "that it won't be long before various 'occult experts' start slithering out of the woodwork to give their 'expert opinion' on the 'occult' nature of Loughner's short-lived reign of terror."  He links to an older post, Quick Note: The Creepy Satanic Crime Videos Shown to Police Officers, about the "Satanic Ritual Abuse" scare of the 1980's and early 1990's.

In a comments below the post, most readers dimissed any alleged occult or religious significance whatsoever.  One dissenting commenter, Jimi Wilson, wrote:

I beg to disagree with the dominant positions here. While the NY Daily News is hardly a newspaper of record, this seems to have an offering plate covered in ashes from incense and/or other burnt offerings and votive candles consistent with an individual's appropriation of Santeria and/or other Afro-Caribbean devotional traditions. Not a proper altar in the traditions' orthodox senses but then these appropriations--especially by people experimenting with alternative forms of religion--rarely are. This seems entirely consistent with the kind of occult experimentalism I have seen time and time again, especially among loners who take no formal training in an occult path.

Well, maybe.  It's hard to tell.  In any case, it should be noted that there are plenty of young people who experiemnt with alternative forms of religion without committing any violent acts.  And, in the vast majority of cases, there is nothing in such experimentation that would constitute a plausible motive for murder.

On January 11, 2011, the San Francisco Sentinel published a story, reprinted from The Daily Beast, Jared Loughner's Parents Break Silence, which contained the following paragraph about how the "altar" photo was obtained:

With a throng of reporters gathered outside the Loughner home, tension has flared. On Monday morning, after reports circulated that the family had an occult shrine in their backyard, a photographer wielding a long-lensed camera jumped the back fence to snap pictures of what appeared to be a faux skull and some candles. Randy responded with a call to authorities, who dispatched a few squad cars to look into the incident. "[Mr. Loughner] told that person to leave, and we're investigating the trespassing," said David Theel of the Pima County Sheriff's Department. Randy briefly exited the house with law enforcement to identify a possible suspect, but then returned and stayed put--not even emerging to attend his son's arraignment in a Phoenix federal court that afternoon.

Judging by the above-quoted article, it seems to me that we don't even know whether Jared Loughner himself had anything to do with the alleged "shrine," or whether it belonged to his parents.

Be that as it may, of course, Christian supremacists will never miss an opportunity to make non-Christian religions -- or even semi-Christian folk traditions -- look as spooky as possible.




Display:
My first thought upon seeing the 'occult alter' tableau is the Day of the Dead, which is celebrated by many Hispanics in the Southwest, as well as in Mexico and South and Central America, and it evolved through a syncretism of Catholicism and native religious practices. The style of candles that are shown are often sold with labels commemorating figures such as Our Lady of Guadalupe, etc. They're also the cheapest form of candle that one can buy, and they're also quite popular with many Hispanics, who keep a personal shrine in their house, which is a common practice -- although I'm not claiming that the picture shows anything more than a meaningless collection of objects. I can't speak to the oranges but most of the items are unremarkable. The Day of the Dead is not an occult event (IMO) and is no more remarkable than Halloween, which occurs a few days before that. And the skull itself could be merely a Halloween decoration.
"When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross." - Sinclair Lewis
by colinski on Thu Jan 20, 2011 at 01:56:00 AM EST

After examining the picture of the 'altar', there were a few things that struck me, especially about the spatial relationships (something we regularly examine and analyze in archaeology).

First, the plate in front of the pot with the fake skull - that could indicate some sort of significance, but it also could be faked or accidental.

Second, there is almost always some sort of balance, structure, and focus to religious scenes, irregardless of the religion.  The plate and pot seem to have some sort of focus especially when you consider where they are located in that opening/alcove, but two items in themselves are not enough to say for sure.  The three candles off to the side in a group suggests storage.  Likewise the placement of the potting soil.  I know of NO religious significance to potting soil, especially in a sealed bag (natural soil on the other hand, does have significance at certain times and settings...).

The only thing that raises any question whatsoever about the storage idea is that these are placed in some sort of alcove, and in such a way that suggests a focus on the pot with the plastic skull.  The skull in the pot with the oranges also is rather strange, but could have been a Halloween decoration (especially for a party)- my opinion at this time.  That's it.  If it had been some sort of altar, I would expect a different arrangement to the candles and the bag of potting soil and empty pot also contradicts the idea of an altar.

I wish I could see more of the setting, as then I could determine more accurately if there is some sort of deliberate arrangement with a religious-type focus, or if the layout suggests accidental or deliberate storage.

The media (and Religious Right) are jumping to conclusions without doing the proper analysis.  A little extra work could easily tell if this is an altar or not, as well as possibly reveal other significant data.


by ArchaeoBob on Thu Jan 20, 2011 at 10:27:10 AM EST

You've put into words exactly why this scene does NOT look to me like an altar.


by Diane Vera on Thu Jan 20, 2011 at 11:05:24 AM EST
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Why would an Atheist have an altar?  Tell these people to make up their mind.

by OldChaosoftheSun on Fri Jan 21, 2011 at 10:47:24 AM EST
Some forms of Buddhism are atheistic, yet might have altars for the sake of meditative focus.  But there's no reason to believe that Jared Loughner is a Buddhist, nor does anything on the alleged "altar" suggest this.

A LaVeyan Satanist might have an alter for the sake of "psycho-drama."  LaVeyan Satanists are atheists, for whom "Satan" is just a symbol of individuality, independence, etc.  But there's no reason to believe that Jared Loughner is a LaVeyan Satanist (or a Satanist of any other kind either), nor does anything on the alleged "altar" suggest this.


by Diane Vera on Fri Jan 21, 2011 at 11:51:28 AM EST
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