Sunday, December 30, 2007

The "black arts", et al.

It's been a busy week for me, even though it is technically a vacation week. Two things of interest came to my attention.

First, an article read in the Religion News Blog on Pope Benedict XVI. The Pope has decided to rev up the Catholic Church's contingent of exorcists, in an attempt to fight increasing “Satanism.” You can read the article here.

The other is the relatively new book by Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson of the Ghost Hunters TV show, entitled “Ghost Hunting”. I am a big fan of the show, and of Hawes and Wilson's approach to the paranormal. The book is also a very interesting read—I've finally forced myself to put it down in order to write this. In the chapter on a possession case, they mention that the daughter has been using a Ouija board and admitted to dabbling in the “black arts.” I noticed that the words “black arts” were also used in the same context as “occultism”.

As someone who could have been characterized as an “occultist”, I find the usage of this terminology a little disturbing. I want to know what is meant by “Satanism” and “the black arts”. These are not terms that are interchangeable with “occultism.” They may be incorporated under that banner at times, but they are not synonymous. Making them synonymous leads to a lot of discrimination, prejudice, and heartache among those who are serious practitioners with legitimate spiritual aims. To be fair, all parties mentioning these terms above are referring to culturally accepted stereotypes. Which is why I think it's important to make some distinctions.

I think the term “black arts” and “black magic” has been used as a blanket term for all magic. What exactly is magic? In order to define this, you need to start with the understanding that all of the things we experience in this world are manifestations of some type of energy. Magic is an attempt to manipulate that energy towards a certain end. The distinction often made between “white” magic and “black” magic is usually one of intent—those who wish to work WITH existing energies to steer themselves towards a result are considered to be “white” magicians. Those that try to force energies in unnatural directions are considered to be “black” magicians. If you can envision a river—the so-called white magician tries to flow with the river and steer him or herself, the black magician fights the current.

Realistically, “magical” work is neither white nor black. Think about the cardinal element of fire. Fire is a force. It can cook your food and heat your house. It can also burn your house down. It comes down to responsible use of fire, and respect for its power. Magical work is exactly the same.

Now let's look at the idea of “Satanism”. What exactly is a Satanist? Popular definitions suggest that it is someone who practices black magic, and is anti-Christian. After all, to be a Satanist is to defame Christ. This certainly can be true. Organized Satanic churches certainly subscribe to the latter criteria. However, Satanists of this ilk are usually hedonists. They believe that they themselves are gods, and control their own destiny. There is actually nothing wrong with that idea, except that one of the basic human ideals is to respect the “divine” in others and to help each other. While Satanists do have a moral code of sorts, it is really not a spiritual philosophy—it is pure materialism. Even more than that, it is a protest against organized religion, particularly organized Christianity.

What is the problem with Christianity? From talking to many occultists (including Satanists and former Satanists) over the years, the problem is the perennial one—the image of God projected by organized religion. While I don't have a documented study at hand on this, I have observed that some of the most outlandish criminals and serial killers (as well as the most hedonistic of celebrities) have come from very strict religious backgrounds. “Strict” often implies a sense of fear—you do what the Church tells you, or you'll go to hell. It's very reminiscient of the sentiment in the Jonathan Edwards “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” sermon. You are small and insignificant and God could squash you in a moment if you are disobedient. I can remember my Mom telling me about growing up Catholic with this idea, afraid to even have a bad thought about someone. Anyone growing up with this idea, whether consciously intended by the churches or not, is going to naturally bring about a psychological complex. While some may be too afraid to question, others will rebel. These are the folks who will break out of the confines of organized religion to find their own path. Some bear such a hatred for the psychological torment and oppression of their religious upbringing that they are in fact anti-Christian. Those who dig deeper realize that this is an institutional problem, and not necessarily a problem with Christ and his teachings per se. But it takes time to get to that point. Blaming “the Internet and rock music” for anti-Christian sentiment shows an ignorance on the part of the Pope that is staggering. But it's not new.

Instead of souping up the exorcism squad, the Catholic Church (as well as other Christian churches) would do well to examine their approach to teaching believers about God. Some believers fare well with a mystical approach—they want a direct connection to God and shouldn't be denied that connection. Teaching believers to be afraid of God's wrath may breed a respect of sorts, but no love. Fear eventually leads to resentment, and then to rebellion. This can result in anything from finding another religion, to becoming a protesting Satanist, to becoming an atheist.

It is also appropriate to discuss the ceremonial magician's stance on Satan. Biblically, Satan is an adversary that challenges humans' love of God. This challenge is part of the process of truly knowing God. So how did Satan become equated with ultimate evil? It can most likely be traced to the Cathar heresy--the idea that all matter is evil, and only spirit is divine. Even the Church rejected this view. But Kabbalistically, Spirit moves down the Tree of Life into manifestation in Matter. At the center of the Tree of Life sits an image known as Baphomet. Baphomet is protrayed as Satan, but is actually a zoomorph--animal and human, male and female, and making sacred signs showing both light and dark. He represents all possibilities for incarnation, and is in fact the force that moves spirit to matter, and vice versa. A force to be respected as such, not worshipped. Certainly not some incarnation or spirit of ultimate evil.

As to the “demonic possession” side of the equation—even the Church would agree that true demonic possession is rare. In evaluating an apparent possession case, one must also look at psychological factors. Even in cases of real possession it is likely that these two things are intertwined. Schizophrenia and other abnormalities involving a fragmented personality can look very much like demonic possession. I think that the Church has shown a proper amount of restraint in this area in recent history, and should continue to do so.

So what causes demonic possession? I think Jason Hawes is accurate when he suggests that such things are invited, and don't happen on their own. Ouija boards might be one way. I would suggest that most of the time Ouija boards are useless—they don't do much more than reflect your current state of mind. Having said that, I do agree that they can invite unwanted influences in if the person using the board is psychologically weak in some way, even if they don't realize it. Even Aleister Crowley was opposed to the use of Ouija boards (see Equinox III:10).

What about those practicing specific rituals (usually Goetic invocations) designed to raise demons? I have never personally done this, and don't really understand why someone would. I have met practitioners who have done these rituals, usually invoking minor demons rather than the major ones. There are two reasons that I have been given for demonic invocation: the first is that demons are in fact a manifestation of our inner neuroses and psychoses, and directly confronting them allows you to bind them and put them out of the way. The other is that allowing a demon to serve a human creates a situation where the demon can evolve spiritually OUT of being a demon through service. I am not sure of either of these claims. I would still suggest that this is not a sound approach to dealing with one's neuroses/psychoses---you really won't know how much power they have over you until you do the deed, and then it could be fatal or dangerous if you've miscalculated. There are other ways of confronting and dealing with one's inner demons.

Of course, there are those that do these things of pure ignorance, usually from curiosity or as an attempt to display some kind of power. I would suggest that having an open and non-fear-based concept of divinity and of earthly life (which is part of divinity as well) would curtail some of these ventures. One only attempts to make themselves “big” if they feel very small.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Religion in 2007

For those of us with a religious-studies interest, it has been a pretty eventful year. In reviewing my bookmarks, I noticed several themes emerging in the religious news.

1.Increased interest in spirituality among college students: Compared to 10 or 15 years ago, students attending secular universities are more religious. A survey done in 2004 indicates:
“more than two-thirds of 112,000 freshmen surveyed said they prayed, and that almost 80 percent believed in God. Nearly half of the freshmen said they were seeking opportunities to grow spiritually, according to the survey by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.”

Most universities seem to feel there is a “shift” towards religiosity, based on increased attendance at houses of worship by students, increased interest in religious studies programs (does that mean more jobs for professors???), and the demand for more religious groups on campus. The “shift is accounted for in a number of ways: uncertainty over the war in Iraq, baby boomers not giving their children religion, with the consequence of their children looking to religion to deal with tragedy, increase in evangelicals in secular institutions, etc.

2. The “attack” of atheism: Between the outcry against “The Golden Compass” and the bestselling books by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Ian McEwan, atheism has been in the news a lot lately.

3.The debate over “intelligent design”: This still continues, and my favorite article on this one is the religious discussion on the “Flying Spaghetti Monster”.

4.Wicca now the 3rd largest religion in the United States: It is predicted that Wicca will have 20 million or more members by 2012. That’s pretty big for a directionless religion (if you’ll pardon my editorializing)

5. Mitt and Mormonism: Mitt Romney is the first Mormon to make a presidential bid, and it’s bringing up a lot of controversy about exactly what Mormonism is,and whether or not a Mormon should be President.

I’ve saved the big one for last here…

5.Blasphemy: We’re hearing about this mostly in the Muslim world, most notably in the case of schoolteacher Gillian Gibbons, who had a large group of Sudanese extremists calling for her death for allowing her students to name a teddy bear Mohammed. There’s also the bounty offered for the death of Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks for drawing a cartoon that was critical of Islam. There have been many other instances of this type of thing—people having to fear for their lives for representing Islam in a manner unapproved by popular clerics.

So, the question is—culturally, what are we to make of all of this? I have a habit of looking for patterns in religious behavior in society, which may be a good or bad habit depending on your point of view.

First, I see that this phenomenon that we could call “conservative Christianity” is hanging in there, though there is now some backlash. I think I am in agreement with Huston Smith that the debate as it is presented still misses a heck of a lot. There is this sharp line drawn between those who believe in God and those who don’t, and it’s drawn out as some great battle between good and evil. This is not a battle between good and evil. It’s the same old business of Biblical literalism versus a sort of scientific existentialism—either God exists and functions in the way the literalists suggest, or He/She/It doesn’t exist at all, and those who believe in such a being are immature and unwilling to face reality.

What is missed here is that the debate is not about the “ultimate concern” (to use Paul Tillich’s phrase). It is about control. I agree with the assessment that religion is more popular because the world seems very uncertain, and perhaps because of the lack of religious training that baby-boomer children have had, though that would only be one factor. When people are afraid, they need something to cling to—the child missing his parent clings to his teddy bear; when it’s dark out, we look for a light; when it’s stormy and windy, we cling to something solid or get inside to keep from being blown away.

Institutionalized religion is just the comfort for many people. The religions are established, they have rules, and they have specific guidelines for behavior, to allow one to make a judgment in the face of uncertainty. The more unsteady and uncertain a person or group feels, the more they cling to “the rules” for safety. It is not uncommon for former drug addicts, prostitutes, and other socially dysfunctional members of society to embrace religion and become “born again”. This is not to suggest that everyone who embraces these things is sick or crazy—it is merely illustrative of the fact that it is viewed as a means of controlling the out-of-control.

There is nothing wrong with using your religion as a navigational tool to find your way through life, or belonging to an organization to help give you a sense of social identity. The problem comes in when these organizations feel the need to make everyone else adhere to their rules. God refers to something Ultimate, something that is beyond our comprehension. There is no way that any holy book in any religion can possibly lay down the “will of God”—at best they can be a guide.

Which leads us to Blasphemy. What is that, anyway? Taking the name of God “in vain” seems to be the most common definition. For Muslims, creating any image of God is a blasphemy, and they do think this for what I consider to be the right reason—you can’t make an Image of the Ultimate—people will mistake the image for the thing it points to. And by the way—Atheists also believe that you can’t make an image of God. Whatever drives the universe, you cannot give it a gender, physical attributes, or even political or religious attributes. Whatever God is, we can be pretty certain that God is beyond all of our limited human comprehension. Mystics in all religions try to talk about God, but admit that they will always fail, because God is something experienced, and impossible to describe with any real sense of accuracy. The real “blasphemy” comes in trying to limit God to your own petty rules, conflicts, and dogmas. I find it amazing that extremist Muslims can speak out against the use of images, but then declare that God wants them to kill certain types of people who don’t “fit in” with what God wants. Under such logic, how can you claim to know what God wants without violating your own rules on blasphemy?

The inconsistencies of organized religion are not unrecognized in our society. Atheists and others viewed by conservatives as “anti-Christian” are actually anti-institution. They don’t like the petty rules of religious organizations, which are often bandied about at convenient times (and not very consistently) driving the lives of individuals with varied beliefs—beliefs about something that we can all agree that we do not “know”. At the same time, there is a felt need for “purpose”, and this is what really drives people to spirituality—the need to feel that you are relevant in society, and that your existence isn’t pointless.

Which brings me to Wicca. I practiced Wicca for many years, and I’m not sure that I’m too excited about it being “the next big thing” in American religion. Wicca, among other things, has an appeal because of its loose organization. But that benefit is also a detriment—you basically have groups of seekers getting together battling out their own ego issues among each other, and making up the rules as they go along. There are a very large number of “solitary” Wiccans because they can’t stand the group dynamics that exist in covens. I’m sure that there are very functional covens, but I’ve not personally experienced any. It’s a pretty basic tenet of psychology—the larger a group gets, the more the petty politics takes over, as the cause bringing the group together is usually subverted by battles for dominance and power within the group. In a case like this, even if you have many sincere spiritual seekers, it is still a case of the blind leading the blind.

I could say much more about all of this, but I’ve gone on for too long already. I will probably write more in another post. Happy holidays, everyone, and cheers to 2008 being an interesting year (in a good way).

Wednesday, December 05, 2007


This demonstrates everything I love about The Onion--I can't even put it into words. People probably think I'm strange for finding this so funny, but I can't help myself.