The process of a religious believer losing his religion is known in atheist circles as “deconversion.” A few years ago, John Ash Bowie posted an interesting article on his livejournal announcing his deconversion from Thelema and offering critiques of his former “religion.”
You can read his blog entry here.
Bowie, for those who don’t know who he is, is a former OTO member and a “naturalist” Thelemite, whose website Eidolons of Ash has a number of interesting essays on Thelema from an atheist perspective. His more recent work concerns “religious naturalism,” and you can read his website on RN here.
Of course, readers of my blog will be aware that I don’t treat Thelema as a “religion” in the sense of being a collection of undemonstrable doctrines about the universe. But many Thelemites *do*, as apparently Bowie did. [See "Skeptical of the True Will?" for an instance of a Thelemite trying to reduce Thelema to a position of faith, along with my refutation]
What’s so striking about Bowie’s account of his deconversion is how similar it is to other stories of atheists, who ironically deconverted from their former faiths because of their very attempt to confirm the truth of their beliefs. Bowie writes:
So what happened? In about a two-year time span I went from being a zealot to an apostate. This essay is not going to retell that tale, however, since my primary interest is in offering a critique rather than a biography. I will say that it primarily involved a project that required examining many of Crowley's core documents with an analytical eye. Although I initially went into that project fully expecting the examination to support my Thelemic faith, it was eventually to dissolve it. I fought it tooth and nail until the very end, performing all kinds of theoretical contortions to justify holding on to Thelema, but it just wasn't enough. I came out of that tunnel a non-believer. (emphasis added)
This account strongly resembles many other deconversion stories floating around on the internet, and it brings to mind for me particularly the story told by Matt Dillahunty, host of the public access show (and internet show) The Atheist Experience. Dillahunty has frequently spoken on the show of his time as a fundamentalist Christian, which he was from the age of five until sometime after thirty. Like Bowie, he reports that he engaged in a process of examining his faith – in his case, as a preparation for attending seminary, as he felt he had a calling; his study was to enable him to justify Christianity to himself *and* to enable him to better win souls for Christ. And just like Bowie, Dillahunty found that his study had destroyed his faith and convinced him that Christianity, along with all other religions, was not justified and that no one had good reason to believe it.The point of both of these stories is one made by Bowie in the comments section of his post: "Free inquiry and curious investigation are generally not compatible with stable religious belief."
[Amusingly, the person he is conversing with responds by observing “I don't want to live in world where there's no magick,” demonstrasting (once again) a point I have frequently made on this blog: religious types think that preserving the feeling of magic is more important than figuring out what’s actually going on.]
In his post, Bowie offers a rational critique of the “religion” of Thelema, and in my post here, I intend to critique Bowie’s critique and demonstrate that he is in fact objecting not to Thelema, but to a religion, one loosely based on Crowley’s writings and on a murky interpretation of Thelema. The point that I intend to make by this is simple: that the supernaturalist religion that some people mistakenly insist on calling “Thelema” cannot withstand rational scrutiny and that – unless the Thelemic community gets serious about defining and talking about Thelema – the nonsense that some people call "Thelema" will drive intelligent seekers, who absolutely will think along the lines that Bowie does, away from Thelema.
Read on for more.
Bowie offers three different critiques of Thelema, which I will address in reverse order.
Problem with Ethics
There is a common assumption that no authentically Willful act would involve committing such crimes, implying that there exists some higher system of order or justice to which Will automatically conforms.
[He follows this with a series of questions about this premise]
A rational examination of these questions would conclude that such a Thelemic system would be a practical impossibility. Any Thelemic social system would, at some point, depend on judgments regarding values, ideals, and goals. Without them, it becomes impossible to agree upon ideas like social progress, the acquisition and transmission of knowledge, and how to spend our collective resources. And without these, we are left with nihilistic barbarism. Of course, Crowley's solution to the problem was "benevolent despotism", which is no solution at all.
Bowie correctly notes here that a Thelemic social system based on the idea that “no authentically Willful act would involve committing such crimes” is completely impractical. Indeed, others have noted that Thelema is not a social system and not a political system, that it could be, in theory, compatible with any form of society or government. [See here for Erwin Hessle’s concise exploration of this question and see here for a post in which I (eventually) talk about a similar issue]
However, the premise upon which Bowie rests his argument – the “common assumption” that he starts with – is false. While Crowley does, in a few isolated places, propose that no two True Wills can conflict, his idea is not supported by The Book of the Law or by reality, as Erwin Hessle has demonstrated (see here). Further, while Crowley does, in a few isolated places, try to come up with ways of implementing Thelema as a system of society, his ideas are unworkable, tyrannical, and riddled with elementary thought errors.
Luckily, Thelema is not a system of government or society. Thelema does not presuppose that it cannot be part of an individual’s True Will to commit [what a temporal government declares to be] a crime, nor does Thelema mandate a society in which every citizen is enabled – or even given the opportunity – to do his true will.
Thelema is an entirely individual philosophy, capable of being practiced by an individual in any society at all. As long as an individual has the ability to do his or her True Will in a given society, then that individual will likely not care very much about politics (unless, of course, that individual’s True Will is to be a politician).
There’s a bigger problem here, though: Bowie starts from the perspective that ethical positions dreamt up by his mind are "of higher priority" than the true will. As he puts it in his essay, “Ethically, I detest the notion that manifesting one's Will is of higher priority than any social obligation or that it requires overriding one's inherent sense of compassion, fairness, or emotional attachment.”
Now, one is, of course, at liberty to hold this position if one wishes, but it is the polar opposite of Thelema, substituting, as it does, the arbitrary preferences of the mind in the place of the actual preferences of the True Self.
2. Problems with the Supernatural
Here is a topic that is well-tread on this blog, and one that I will not have to spend much time covering again. But here’s how Bowie puts it:
So, do souls, Holy Guardian Angels, or higher selves exist? They are no more likely to than similar constructs found in any other religion. What's more, science continues the process of naturalizing the universe, so that where souls and angels once provided explanations, we now have the fields of neurology and physics. True, science cannot explain or test everything. But if a scientific instrument is unable to detect a spiritual construct, then neither can the brain, which is itself also a physical object. In all of the minute examinations of the brain, we have never found a mysterious neuron that seems to react to otherwise undetectable signals, such as data transmitted from a soul or angel. I suppose it's possible that one day we might, but until that day, I see no reason to assume they exist.
Indeed, any reasonable and impartial study of the universe reveals that there is no evidence of the supernatural and that personal, subjective anecdotes of ooky-spooky coincidences and such are not even close to evidence for claims of such magnitude.
Obviously, I’m in complete agreement with Bowie on his dismissal of the supernatural, but I strongly disagree that such dismissal has anything at all to do with Thelema.
Thelema, as expressed in the published writings of Aleister Crowley, is a system of individual attainment that deals entirely with discriminating between what an individual actually is and what he fondly imagines himself to be. That’s it. Thelema has no intrinsic connection to ceremonial magick or to any supernatural claims.
The HGA is not in any way a “spirit” or a “soul” in any sense of the term, as Crowley explicitly and consistently affirmed (see Erwin Hessle’s "Holy Guardian Angel" for a thorough treatment of the question).
That some Thelemites – more than a few of them apparently nutjobs, I might add – practice ceremonial magick and believe supernatural claims doesn’t make Thelema itself a “magical” practice or supernatural belief, any more than the fact that some Thelemites play poker doesn’t make Thelema a gambling practice. Further, that some Thelemites use magical practices (and not necessarily the supernatural theory that underlies some of these practices) in the service of attainment; that some Thelemites (including apparently Crowley) hold some supernatural beliefs; that Crowley claimed Thelema was inspired by events that we may call “supernatural”; none of the above makes Thelema a “magical” or “supernatural” system.
Thelema is entirely distinct from the supernatural and from “magick” (defined in the limited sense of doing ceremonies to cause coincidences to happen by some apparently supernatural means). That there is no good reason to accept the supernatural tells us precisely nothing about whether or not an individual has good reason to accept Thelema.
Why is this important? Because virtually every presentation of Thelema I have ever seen online has heavily emphasized the supernatural, blithely accepting and repeating Crowley’s patently ridiculous story of the “reception” of The Book of the Law and presenting the practice of Thelema as a “magical” one.
In other words, what they call Thelema is not actually Thelema, but rather a magick-based religion that they insist on calling Thelema.
Intelligent people – who are usually aware that there is no compelling evidence of the supernatural – will either run in the opposite direction of Thelema or they will rationalize the acceptance of some supernatural beliefs until they eventually – if they are honest enough – realize that there is no evidence for the supernatural. When the latter happens, these folks who think Thelema is a magical religion will lose their “faith.”
3. Problems with the True Will
I’ve saved the big one for last. Bowie’s time in the OTO – the world’s largest organization of Thelemites, whose entire stated purpose is to promulgate Thelema and to teach people about Thelema – seems to have left him confused as to what the True Will actually is.
In terms of Thelemic doctrine, Will is not a well-defined structure.
I would, of course, beg to differ. A very definite and workable idea of True Will can be gleaned by looking through Crowley’s entire body of work, The Book of the Law, and reality itself. (See Erwin’s True Will and The Khabs is in the Khu, my "Skeptical of the True WIll?", and transversegirl’s On True Will & the Self for three relatively recent and consistent accounts of the True Will)
Bowie goes on to briefly summarize the idea of True Will, as I assume he understands it:
At the bottom of Will, however, is the notion that every person has within them a central drive to action that is either externally derived—most often from a being called the Holy Guardian Angel—or internally provided by an unconscious "silent self". However, humans are generally blinded to this Will, in part due to egoism (a too-strong sense of "I") and in part due to cultural contamination. The main duty of a Thelemite, therefore, is to work through the veils of blindness so to achieve a clear understanding of their own unique Will. Moreover, he or she must develop certain skills (i.e. "magick") and personal traits that will allow that Will to be manifested via action.
In the first place, the Holy Guardian Angel is not a “being” in the sense of a separate spiritual entity who exists outside of a human being (Crowley was explicit on this point, noting that he adopted the term "Holy Guardian Angel" "because the theory implied in these words is so patently absurd that only simpletons would waste much time in analysing it. It would be accepted as a convention, and no one would incur the grave danger of building a philosophical system upon it.")
In the second place, the rest of this paragraph is a passable but vague summary of the concept of True Will, which is – again, I will stress – clearly and consistently defined in Crowley’s works and clearly explicated by a number of commentators who have come after Crowley.
Bowie then offers five objections to this idea of True Will:
First, its definition is vague enough to be without any real utility; if we were talking about something real, a nominal definition would be more clear.
I’ve already addressed this: Bowie is wrong on this point.
In ontological terms, I cannot accept the idea that a single way of being or acting is ideal in every given situation or that we all have a potential destiny for us to fulfill.
This is yet another false idea about the True Will. The True Will is not an “ideal” way of being or acting, and it is not a “destiny” in the sense of a “cosmic plan” imposed on an individual from without: it is – to simplify a bit too much – what an individual is naturally inclined to do in a particular situation if he or she removes the restrictions of the mind.
Ethically, I detest the notion that manifesting one's Will is of higher priority than any social obligation or that it requires overriding one's inherent sense of compassion, fairness, or emotional attachment
I’ve dealt with this already, too: “ethics,” used here, is just a term for “the arbitrary standards of what my mind considers neat-o. This ethical feeling is part of the veil that the mind casts over the true will.
Psychologically, I see no evidence to believe that there are thoughts or behaviors originating from any process other than normal neural activity, based on innate mechanisms and data perceived from the physical world using the five sensory inputs.
And, of course, Thelema does not claim that the True Will arises anything other than “normal neural activity.” At its root, the True Will refers to those actions – inspired by “normal neural activity” – that are in line with that individual’s inclinations, that are most natural, most authentic to an individual, defined in contrast to those actions – equally inspired by “normal neural activity” – that the individual consicously “makes” himself do, against his inclinations.
Further, the notion of a discrete "ego" and "unconscious" has been long abandoned scientifically—meaning that, objectively speaking, there is no hidden authentic mind privy to occult truths that could be accessed consciously if only the ersatz "I-mind" could be quieted or eliminated. This simplistic idea does a great disservice to the complex functions of the brain and the way humans maintain a sense of self and experience the world.
Thelema does not claim that there is a “hidden authentic mind” that is “privy to occult truths.” It merely claims that if one quiets the part of the mind that tells the Self what it “should” be doing, the preferences of the Self will be much clearer and much easier to manifest. Consult the many articles linked elsewhere in this post for a full treatment of this question.
As I have demonstrated, Bowie’s critique is aimed not at Thelema, but at a religion loosely based on Thelema that he insists on misdescribing as “Thelema.” Some of the weird tenets of this religion include:
The True Will cannot include actions that governments deem to be illegal.
Two True Wills cannot conflict.
Thelema depends on supernatural claims.
The True Will might be imposed on an individual by a fully external separate “spiritual” being.
True Will is a vague concept with no real meaning.
Certainly, anyone who belonged to a religion that held those tenets would indeed discover that his beliefs are not justified by reality, but the point I wanted to make in this article is that neither are these beliefs justified by Thelema itself.
This raises an interesting question: where, exactly, did Bowie get these ideas from? He was, as I noted earlier, a member of the OTO, the world’s largest organization for promulgating and teaching Thelema, rising to at least “fifth degree” in its hierarchy. How could someone attain a relatively high rank in such an organization and yet have such a misunderstanding of Thelema?
The answer, I’m sorry to say, has to do with the OTO’s identity as a “dogma-less” religious organization, as an organization apparently unwilling to clearly define and explain Thelema.
On the FAQ page of the OTO website, the following question and answer appear:
Do I have to believe in some particular dogma to join O.T.O.?
If you decide to pursue full membership, as a I°, you will be stating that you accept the Book of the Law as written, without wishing to change it. Even in the Minerval degree, you will be making a commitment in the strongest terms to uphold the ideals of freedom set forth in the Book of the Law. However, how you interpret the Book of the Law and its significance is largely up to you.
As Erwin Hessle points out in his blog, referring also to a previous question on the FAQ page in which the concept of Will is declared to be a “philosophical puzzle” that “resists easy solution”:
What we have with the OTO, then, is an organisation ostensibly created to support Thelemites in their central task of discovering and performing their wills, not only refusing to take a position on what the will actually is, but actually declaring it to be a “philosophical puzzle” which probably has no solution. This is a bizarre situation by any standards. In the 105 years since the “reception” of The Book of the Law, the largest organisation of Thelemites is still unwilling and unable to say what it even is they are trying to do.
The result of such a dogma-less stance is the proliferation of weird and impractical idiosyncratic “interpretations” that have little to do with Thelema. Such proliferation makes Thelema seem like total nonsense, as is apparent in Bowie’s earnest presentation of Thelema as murky, vague, and bound up in supernatural claims. An organization that refuses to correct its members’ misunderstandings about Thelema is one that tacitly permits such misunderstandings to continue unabated. Probably out of a misguided sense of desiring each individual to “find his own answer” (see here…and here), the organization allows members to believe that Thelema means anything at all, to construct their own personal “religion” and doctrines.
The problem is that, sooner or later, the intelligent folks who actually take the time to sit down and think through their personal religion are going to realize that its tenets are all crap, unaware of the fact that their “religion” isn’t Thelema at all.
It needs to be made clear here that I don’t have any personal “beef” with the OTO. To the contrary, I think their work in publishing Crowley and in making performances of his rituals available to the public (both the Mass and the initiation rituals) has been excellent. Further, I think most of the criticism launched against the OTO by its detractors is inane and nutty (“Copyright is unthelemic!” or “They’ve lost their ‘magical power’ by becoming a ‘mundane organization’” People who make statements like this need to have to have their heads examined).
Having said that, I think that there are a number of valid critiques of the OTO: that they seem unwilling to clearly explain what Thelema is and how the practice of it works, that they do not sufficiently encourage critical thinking and skepticism among its members, and that (from what I’m able to gather, at least), supernaturalism is common among the membership (and it goes unchallenged, and even encouraged).
I would humbly recommend that if the OTO is serious about growing its membership, engaging them in the organization, and giving them some real content to promulgate, that it begin taking a clear stance on what Thelema actually is and begin training its members in skepticism, critical thinking, and argumentation.
Thelemites need a firm grounding in critical thinking, not endless classes on the hidden meaning of tarot cards or lessons on the Qabalah, as interesting as those may be. More importantly, they need to be given a clear understanding of Thelema: what its goals are, how those goals can be reached, what practices enable one to reach those goals, and – most importantly – why someone is justified in thinking that the goal is real and that the recommended practices really do enable one to reach those goals.