Arguments for Thelema being a religion
Part of the Thelema & Religion series
Among many contemporary Thelemites, there have developed several arguments for Thelema being a religion. This article presents some of the most common. For the sake of this article, it is assumed that by Thelema, we are referring more or less to the Thelema as introduced by Aleister Crowley, with The Book of the Law as it's core document.
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The basis of any such argument has to begin with the meaning of the word "religion". There is certainly no universal consensus as to what does and does not comprise a religion. At the most narrow end, it is possible to argue that religion exists only when it is contained within an organization (such as the Roman Catholic Church), and maintains at its core a faith in one or several supreme beings. But this is a more Western concept, and not a common conclusion among those who study the nature of religion. At it's broadest, religion can be seen as any system of thought that informs one's worldview, leading to formation of ideas regarding morals, behavior, attitudes, values, and the nature of existence.
Within the field of religious study, there are four common models for defining religion:
- A system designed to address the fundamental questions of human identity, ethics, death and the existence of the Divine (if any).
- A set of beliefs which makes claims that lie beyond the realm of objective scientific observation, according to some authority or personal experience with the Divine.
- A set of beliefs about cause and effect that Occam's Razor would remove as recognizing causes that are more than what is both true and sufficient to explain the physical evidence.
- The formal institutions, creeds, organizations, practices, and rules of conduct, of and institutionalized religion so-called.
To some degree, Thelema meets all of these requirements. It is not pure philosophy, because Thelema does more than conjecture on meaning—it includes an active method for achieving subjective spiritual states that deal with:
- The divine, the spiritual, or the sacred (e.g. Holy Guardian Angel)
- Subjective knowledge that cannot be exactly replicated using objective scientific methods (Knowledge and Conversation of one's HGA)
- Change, both internal and external to the self (accomplished using magical ritual)
The fourth model can be filled as well:
- There are formal religious organizations built upon the principles of Thelema (the EGC)
Many Thelemites recoil at the term religion, possibly because of associates with Christianity. However, Christianity is not the sole model for religion (see: List of religions). As such, beliefs regarding salvation, an objective supreme being, and original sin are not necessary requirements for being a religion. It does not follow that because Christianity is a religion, and Thelema is not Christianity, then Thelema must not be a religion. As shown above Thelema meets the qualifications for the four most common models.
See: Religion for a more in-depth examination.
Crowley believed Thelema was a new religion
For those who give weight to Crowley's opinions, he clearly considered Thelema a new type of religion. From Confessions (ch.49):
- 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.
In this new type of religion, Thelema is no longer subject to the ideas of faith, but embraces the concepts of modern science, and combines with it to become a kind of "scientific religion." This is embodied in the motto he adopted for his mystical order, the A.'.A.'., which is "The method of science—the aim of religion." He references this motto in Magick without Tears, (Ch.XXXI):
- 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.
Crowley is arguing that Thelema redefines religion as a system that must work with science, not oppose it. He makes this position clear in the same chapter; "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." He believed that The Book of the Law was a perfect combination of the religious and the scientific. From Confessions (ch.49):
- The existence of true religion presupposes that of some discarnate intelligence, whether we call him God or anything else. And this is exactly what no religion had ever proved scientifically. And this is what The Book of the Law does prove by internal evidence, altogether independent of any statement of mine. This proof is evidently the most important step in science that could possibly be made: for it opens up an entirely new avenue to knowledge.
And more succinctly in "Notes for an Astral Atlas" in Magick, Book 4—"In a word, the Book of the Law proves the prime postulate of Religion. The Magician may therefore be confident that Spiritual Beings exist, and seek the Knowledge and conversation of His own Holy Guardian Angel with the same ardour as that of Frater Perdurabo [Crowley]..."
From a larger point of view, Crowley labored to create (or announce) Thelema as a religion based not on pure faith but on spiritual attainment through the mystical science of magick and yoga. He writes in 'Confessions (ch.36):
- It is possible to base a religion, not on theory and results, but on practice and methods. It is honest and hopeful to progress on admitted principles towards the development of each individual mind, and thus to advance towards the absolute by means of the consciously willed evolution of the faculty of apprehension. Such is in fact the idea underlying initiation. It constitutes the absolute justification of the Path of the Wise as indicated by the adepts, whether of the magical or mystical schools. For Yoga offers humanity an organ of intelligence superior to intellect, yet co-ordinate with it, and Magick serves to arise spiritual energies which while confirming those of the mind, bring them to their culmination.
- Crowley, Aleister. (1997). Magick: Book 4. 2nd ed. York Beach, Me. : S. Weiser.
- ____. (1979). The Confessions of Aleister Crowley. London;Boston : Routledge & Kegan Paul.
- ____. (1982). Magick Without Tears. Phoenix, AZ : Falcon Press