Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Enemy of the Enemy of My Enemy

A few years ago, occult author Donald Tyson published an article online entitled "Atheism, the Real Enemy," and its argument should be very familiar to regular readers of this blog: that pagans – and, as Tyson makes clear, supernaturalist occultists of all stripes – have much more in common than Christians (and other religionists) than they do with atheists and skeptics.
Though several members of the pagan community who commented on this article – and the several people who wrote “responses” to this article – took issue with its argument, what’s striking is that Tyson perceives very clearly a point that I have been insisting for some time: that occultism and paganism are religious orientations, at home with (and ultimately make claims whose truth values are indistinguishable from the claims of) other religions like Christianity, and strongly opposed to rational investigation, skepticism, and methods of distinguishing truth from falsehood.
Though Tyson would probably not phrase his position quite like that, that is precisely the argument of his article.
Read on for a few thoughts on this article.
As a bit of background, Tyson writes a lot about ceremonial magick and is probably best known for his work on The Necronomicon as a magical text, composing his own version of this fictional, legendary tome of magic and drawing connections between HP Lovecraft’s fictional, make believe pantheon and the traditional correspondences of Western magick.
Tyson’s work seems interested in contacting “entities” of various kinds, and he apparently accepts that supernatural beings are real and can affect humans. His book Enochian Magic for Beginners was the first book I purchased on the subject of Enochian many years ago when I studied it, and this book, while a decent introduction to the subject, mostly stands out in my mind for the bizarre suggestion made near the beginning that Enochian magick is a tool by which spirits can enter the minds of humans in order to bring about the apocalypse (?). As we shall see in his article on atheism, Tyson continues to make nutty supernatural claims.
The first thing to note about his article on atheism is that those in the magical community who resist Tyson’s claims do not dispute his premise that supernaturalism of all stripes is opposed to rational inquiry. Instead, their resistance mainly hinges on labels: a number of responders argue that atheism and materialism can be consistent with a belief in the supernatural and that the real enemy is not atheism or materialism, per se, but a certain attitude within the atheist community – that is, skepticism.
As I’ve said on this blog – such as in the introductory post – my atheism and materialism are derived from skepticism, which I adopt because I am interested in believing in as many true claims and as few false claims as possible. Properly applied skepticism is the starting point for anyone who doesn’t want to delude themselves, and it necessarily leads to atheism, materialism, and moral nihilism. However, it is possible to be an atheist or materialist or moral nihilist for reasons other than skepticism – in fact, it’s quite possible to be an atheist or materialist or moral nihilist for absolutely stupid reasons (such stupid reasons include being an atheist because “There’s so much evil in the world” or “Because I believe that the universe is conscious and created itself without a god” or “Because I like the idea of atheism” or “Because I hate my parents” or “Because my spirit guide told me to be an atheist during my pathworking meditation last night”).
So those who take issue with Tyson’s argument tend to do so not on the grounds that the occult can stand up to rational scrutiny – they do so on the grounds that one can be an atheist/materialist without having to properly employ rational scrutiny (which they frequently insist on mislabeling as “fundamentalism” of some kind, conveniently following a believer script I pointed out here).
And again, none of them would phrase it like that, but that’s exactly what they are saying.
In other words, responders mainly don’t like the claim that occultism has more in common with Christianity than atheism, but they have little to offer as arguments against that claim, except for an attempt to re-label properly applied skepticism as “fundamentalism” of some kind.
One passage of the article that generated a bit of outrage from responders is this one:
Atheism has the potential to become a much greater threat to witchcraft, paganism, and New Age practices than Christianity ever was, even in its darkest and most intolerant days, because even then, when witches were being burned at the stake throughout most of Europe, both pagans and Christians shared a belief in higher spiritual powers and in supernatural agencies.
Taken on the surface, this does seem to be an extreme claim, and it was surely written for the shock value, forcing people to consider it more closely. As one surprised reader so eloquently put it in the comments section:
You’d rather be burned alive by a Christian than have an atheist tell you that they don’t believe in your gods or your magic?
There is something definitely wrong here.

However, a little thought demonstrates that Tyson’s remark has a sound basis. After all, one religious group being oppressed by another religious group – as awful as it is for those being oppressed – reinforces the value of religion (and the supernatural) in general. Yes, the specifics of the situation are awful, but it’s easy to work it into the narrative of one’s belief in the supernatural.
The attacks of skeptics are something entirely different, as they completely undermine the very basis of belief itself.
In other words, when a pagan is attacked by a Christian, the argument is over which one of them is *correct* about which ooky-spooky ghosts are in charge of the world. But when a pagan is attacked by a skeptic, the very idea that there are ooky-spooky ghosts at all – and with it, the idea that human beings are special, survive death, etc. – is called into question.
Tyson, to give him credit, sees all of this very clearly, and he is obviously aware that the things that he and other occultists believe could never stand up to skeptical, rational scrutiny.
Unfortunately, Tyson’s reasoning for opposing atheism is – as you might have guessed – batshit insane:
Atheism is a kind of many-tentacled monster of the Void that will eventually devour all forms of faith other than its own merciless, unforgiving worship of what is dead and empty. If allowed to grow unchecked, it will do immense harm to the human race, by cutting off avenues of communication between human beings and spiritual beings. As we all know, belief creates reality in the astral realms, and the fanatical belief of atheism is in sterility and non-existence.
Yes, that’s right, folks. Atheism is a “many-tentacled” Cthulhu-like monster that endorses a “fanatical belief” in “sterility and non-existence” [note: in point of fact – as I have said repeatedly – atheism is not a position of faith or belief]. Apparently, if we let these big, bad skeptics keep winning folks over, we’re going to face a truly monstrous horror: we’re going to lose our connection to the ooky-spooky ghosts that run the universe, and we’re going to be all on our lonesome in a vast universe that doesn’t care about us and in which we’re not special.
The sort of paranoid fear of skepticism found in Tyson’s essay is actually quite common among believers, and it’s been growing in the internet age, when the ability to spread information has given skepticism a much wider audience than ever before. Religious believers are definitely noticing. To cite a recent example, well-known Christian apologist Josh McDowell stated a few weeks ago that the internet is the "greatest threat" to Christians:
The Internet has given atheists, agnostics, skeptics, the people who like to destroy everything that you and I believe, the almost equal access to your kids as your youth pastor and you have... whether you like it or not.
Religious believers, including occultists, are probably right to fear skepticism. All things being equal, in the marketplace of ideas, skepticism and rational thought will win out as being superior modes of inquiry into reality than magical thinking ever will. Luckily for the religious, all things are not equal, and the best ideas do not always win. They can rest assured that there will always be plenty of people willing to accept irrational claims. But for the time being, anyway, the spirit of the age seems to be turning against faith and religious belief, and one of the sure signs is to observe the paranoia and rhetoric of the religious who can glimpse the writing on the wall.

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