Demonization is the reinterpretation of polytheistic deities as demons by other religions, generally monotheistic and henotheistic ones. Rather than denying the existence of the other religion's pantheon entirely, the proselytizer says instead that they are not gods worthy of worship but demons trying to deceive their followers. Demonization is most closely associated with Christian missionaries to pagans during the spread of Christianity, though Judaism, Islam, and other religions have had similar practices.

The term has since been expanded to refer to any characterization of individuals, groups, or political bodies as evil.


Many religions, including Islam, Judaism, and Christianity have been demonized, both by elements within their religions and outside. At the extreme, demonizing religion has led to religious violence and wars.

In addition to the religious viewpoint, demonization has several potential purposes from a secular standpoint. Most simply, demonization can be used to denigrate an opposed individual or group, making adherents to your own religion less inclined to do business with them (and possibly convert) and more inclined to fight against them. If foreigners are evil and corrupted by demonic influence, then any means of self-defense is easily portrayed as legitimate. Even when not at war, demonization presents a strong justification for the suppression of the demonized religion or group. Arguably, the repeated portrayal of almost all pagans in the Middle East as Baal-worshippers in the Hebrew Bible is an example of this. If pagans are corrupted by the demon-"god" Baal, then clearly they must be fought or at least oppressed. Especially in the earlier books of the Hebrew Bible, foreign deities are portrayed as existing and corrupting entities rather than being mere powerless idols. Some would argue this later transferred to Christianity after Constantine I's ascension in its suppression of Roman paganism. Much later, the language of demonization would be invoked during the Spanish inquisition, leading to the expulsion of Jews and Moriscos from Spain.

The view of early Judaism treating foreign deities as devils while later Judaism treating them as non-existent is not universal. , for example, is alternately translated as "For all the Gods of the gentiles are nothing," "For all the Gods of the gentiles are devils" (Vulgate), and "For all the gods of the peoples are idols."(NRSV) The Greek Septuagint translation of that passage, used by the early Christian Church, used the "devils" version.

Political conflicts

Demonization was sometimes used against what were arguably political opponents rather than religious ones. The Knights Templar were destroyed by accusations that they worshipped Baphomet from King Philip the Fair. Baphomet, often thought to be a corruption of Muhammad and Beelzebub, may have been used because of the likeness of this horned deity with the Christian images of Satan and its supposed association with the founder of Islam.

In proselytization

As Christianity expanded, demonization acquired usage in evangelism, rather than denying potential converts' previous religious experience.

In other religions

Analogs to demonization exist outside monotheistic religions, as well. Polytheism easily accepts foreign gods in general, and in times of conflict, a foreign nation's gods would sometimes be portrayed as evil. Less commonly, it would be applied to other religions as well. Some strains of Hinduism consider the Buddha an incarnation of Vishnu sent to deceive people, for example. This view of Buddhism as a trick to test people is less common in modern times; many Hindus still believe that Buddha was an incarnation of Vishnu.

Modern usage

In colloquial usage, the term demonization is used metaphorically to refer to propaganda or moral panic directed against any individual or group.

See also

Notes and References

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