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Arguments against Thelema being a religion

From Thelemapedia

Part of the Thelema & Religion series

In contemporary Thelemic culture, there are many Thelemites who do not consider Thelema to be a religion. Among them have developed several arguments against Thelema being a religion. This article lists some of the more common ones.

Table of contents

Crowley's views

If one refers to Crowley to answer the question 'Is Thelema a religion?", it is possible to say "both yes and no". In Magick without Tears, (Ch.XXXI) Crowley writes:

True, [religion is] a slogan of A.'.A.'.: "The method of science—the aim of religion." Here the word 'aim' and the context help the definition; it must mean the attainment of Knowledge and Power in spiritual matters [...] But then there is the sense in which Frazer (and I) often use the word: as in opposition to "Science" or "Magic." Here the point is that religious people attribute phenomena to the will of some postulated Being or Beings, placable and moveable by virtue of sacrifice, devotion, or appeal.

He has even more to say on religion in chapter VI:

It is particularly to be noted that Magick, so often mixed up in the popular idea of a religion, has nothing to do with it. It is, in fact, the exact opposite of religion; it is, even more than Physical Science, its irreconcilable enemy.

So, from the context of religion being that which opposes physical science, Crowley was strongly opposed to the label being applied to Thelema. He clearly defined the primary "method" of Thelema as magick (Magick without Tears):

Magick investigates the laws of Nature with the idea of making use of them. It only differs from 'profane' science by always keeping ahead of it. As Fraser has shown, Magick is science in the tentative stage; but it may be, and often is, more than this. It is science which, for one reason or another, cannot be declared to the profane.

Therefore, if the method of Thelema is magick, by definition Thelema cannot be a religion, since it would oppose itself.

At the same time, Crowley was somewhat arbitrary about the term. He continues:

... our system is a religion just so far as a religion means an enthusiastic putting-together of a series of doctrines, no one of which must in any way clash with Science or Magick.
Call it a new religion, then, if it so please your Gracious Majesty; but I confess that I fail to see what you will have gained by so doing, and I feel bound to add that you might easily cause a great deal of misunderstanding, and work a rather stupid kind of mischief.

For Crowley then, the term was optional, and perhaps damaging to Thelema. In this context, it can be argued that if the term is optional, then Thelema is not, by definition or default, a religion.

Faith is not required

Many consider "faith" (belief in something that cannot be rationally proven or objectively known) to be a defining aspect of religion. Generally, Thelema is not comfortable with the idea of faith. From The Book of the Law":

I give unimaginable joys on earth: certainty, not faith, while in life, upon death; peace unutterable, rest, ecstasy; nor do I demand aught in sacrifice. (AL I:58)

Crowley himself had no truck with faith. From Eight Lectures on Yoga:

The faith of which [Martin Luther] speaks is anything but a substance, and as for evidence, it is nothing but the power, as the schoolboy said, of believing that which we know to be untrue. To have any sensible meaning at all, faith must mean experience, and that view is in exact accord with the conclusion to which we were led in my last lecture. Nothing is any use to us unless it be a certainty unshakeable by criticism of any kind, and there is only one thing in the universe which complies with these conditions: the direct experience of spiritual truth. Here, and here only, do we find a position in which the great religious minds of all times and all climes coincide. It is necessarily above dogma, because dogma consists of a collection of intellectual statements, each of which, and also its contradictory, can easily be disputed and overthrown.

In this context, Thelema is a framework of ideas that allows the adherent to explore the universe with an open and critical eye, which faith would interfere with. Another way of putting it is that Thelema is simply a description of reality. An example of this attitude comes from Joseph Thiebes, quoted in An Analysis of the Gnostic Mass who writes:

Thelema is a law of nature. It does not require faith, service, devotion, worship, commitment, institutions, attitudes, practices, conformity, causes, principles, or beliefs.

If such things are not required, then nothing is left which can be described as "religious." All that is left is experience that results in direct knowledge, or gnosis.

A philosophy first

A popular context of Thelema is as a philosophy. In this sense, Thelema deals with many of the classical philosophical issues, such as free will, law, freedom, personal responsibility, right and wrong, social structure, politics, and even the nature of truth. These issues are addressed critically within Thelema, often using the concepts found in The Book of the Law and in Crowley's writings.

Some of the Gnostic Saints are philosophers, including Roger Bacon, Wolfgang von Goethe, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Crowley was also known to refer to Thelema as a philosophy:

These and similar considerations lead to certain types of philosophical skepticism. Neschamic conceptions are nowise exempt from this criticism, for, even supposing them identical in any number of persons, their expression, being intellectual, will suffer the same stress as normal perceptions. [...] But none of this shakes, or even threatens, the Philosophy of Thelema. On the contrary, it may be called the Rock of its foundation. ("Little Essays Towards Truth", p.61-62)

Within this context, it is possible to say that while Thelema is a philosophy first, it can have a religious expression. In Confessions (ch.49), Crowley offers the reader multiple meanings of Thelema:

Thelema implies not merely a new religion, but a new cosmology, a new philosophy, a new ethics. It co-ordinates the disconnected discoveries of science, from physics to psychology, into a coherent and consistent system. Its scope is so vast that it is impossible even to hint at the universality of its application.

The use of the word merely could have been used to imply that religion is the least of what Thelema is, with the others taking precedence (although to be fair, it could mean that Thelema is not just one, but all of the above).

See also: Thelema as philosophy

Contemporary Opinions

See also


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