Science, Religion, and Thelema

by T Polyphilus

Presented on 29 March, IV xvi
in Thelemic Symposium VII
at Sekhet-Maat Lodge, Portland, Oregon

The debate between science and religion rages on in books, magazines, and television. How does Thelema address this age-old battle of ideas?

I first want to register my objection to the premise
that “the debate between science and religion”
is in fact an “age-old battle of ideas.”
As far as I know, there is no pre-modern history
of such a conflict in Asia or Africa.
While there are debates internal to the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible,
it would be anachronistic and arbitrary
to exclude any of those debating perspectives from the dignity of “religion.”
Early Christian literature shows as little concern with the natural sciences
as antique natural philosophy did with religion.
In the High Middle Ages, we can see an analogous phenomenon
to the opposition of science and religion,
in the competing disciplines of philosophy and theology,
but analogy is not identity.
In early modern Europe,
even while the new cosmology came into spectacular conflict
with the traditions of the Catholic Church,
the scientists were pious.
Historians have also persuasively argued
that certain forms of religion, such as English Puritanism,
encouraged the natural sciences rather than antagonizing them.
It was not until the European Enlightenment
that scientists embraced new worldviews
of rationalistic Deism and mechanistic materialism.

The antagonism between science and religion
that we see rehearsed among today’s demagogues and armchair analysts
tends to follow the forms and fault-lines
consolidated in 19th-century Europe and America.
The most salient issue in that debate was not cosmological,
but anthropological.
The scientific principle of natural selection
provided for diversity of species, including humanity,
without any sort of divine plan.
Reacting against the continuity between human and animal,
conservative thinkers retreated from a theological sophistication
that had already been achieved in the Christian mainstream.
They promoted a new form of biblical inerrancy,
which was flawed even on strictly textual terms,
hoping to use it as a bulwark
against an amoral and indeterminate view of human nature.
The reactionary and obtuse nature of their arguments
only helped to encourage those who inclined toward atheistic naturalism,
and these parties framed the alleged contest between science and religion
that persists until today.

Most religious believers, though,
are not biblical inerrantists who reject modern science out of hand.
And although American scientists profess religious belief
at lower rates than the general population,
most do have some sort of religious orientation.

To fully understand this allegedly bilateral conflict
I think we need to bring in a third term.
That term is, of course, magic.
Several 19th-century thinkers considered these three to be a set,
and the notion was cemented in Frazer’s hugely popular Golden Bough,
which placed them as stages in a series:
magic was superseded by religion,
which in turn gave place to science.

Since the Enlightenment period,
the idea of magic has been used to circumscribe the bounds of religion.
Ritualism and materiality in religion have been derided as “magic,”
thus helping to differentiate “proper” religion as an internalized piety,
removed from the secular sphere,
and far from the natural sciences.
Such differentiated religion is often reduced
to a set of moral principles and vague sentiments,
with symbolism that serves to insulate them from the world,
rather than to bring their force to bear upon it.
It possesses only the power of impotent recollection.

At the same time, the purported dangers of magic
have been used to discipline science as well.
Magic has been assigned to a “primitive mentality”
placed in opposition to the instrumental use of human reason.
It has also been associated with philosophical supernaturalism
foreign to the proper scope of scientific inquiry.
Thus differentiated by means of the boundary of magic,
science at its extreme becomes a sword of reason
cutting down all beings and events into meaningless mechanisms.

It makes sense that the very concept of magic
which had been used to insulate science and religion from one another,
should also be the medium through which they might be integrated.
And in fact, that is exactly the desire that is evident in modern occultism.
Eliphas Levi, the 19th-century magician
who was the first to style himself an occultiste as such,
wrote that “The problem proposed by high initiation
was the union of the Rose and the Cross,”
where the Rose is scientific understanding,
and the Cross is religious knowledge.
The Spiritualist movement of the 19th century
emphasized the experiential and empirical dimensions
of religious knowledge,
while the Theosophy and Hermetic occultism which reacted to it,
sought both to tie religious practice to older esoteric traditions,
and to bring to bear on visionary phenomena
a greater power of rational analysis.
The effort to integrate science and religion
is evident in the motto of the Theosophical Society:
“There is no religion higher than Truth.”

When Crowley published his journal The Equinox,
he chose for its motto: “The method of science, the aim of religion.”
While this slogan was in some ways a mere polemic,
appealing to the hopes of modern occultism generally,
it was accurately descriptive of Crowley’s attitudes.
Throughout his writings on magick,
Crowley drew on contemporary science
as a source for spiritual images and metaphors.
He used astronomy, chemistry, biology and others.
Although not a scientist himself,
he had great respect for the natural sciences,
and when he composed the chief Thelemic ritual for collective religious observance,
he wrote that it should “combine
the most rigidly rational conceptions of phenomena
with the most exalted and enthusiastic celebration of their sublimity,”
and that it “would neither make nor imply
any statement about nature which would not be endorsed
by the most materialistic man of science.”

It is perhaps significant that The Book of the Law was received in 1904,
the year before the publication of Einstein's theory of Special Relativity.
Thelema’s notion of the personal godhead is correspondingly relativized
to the individual world of the Thelemite’s experience.
In keeping with the later particle-wave duality of quantum mechanics,
we understand spiritual events to be observer-dependent.
There is no getting outside of the system of events
without dissolving it altogether.

The Holy Guardian Angel is the personal Savior of the Thelemite,
and the holder of the keys to spiritual emancipation.
But the Angel is peculiar to the individual,
and thus a certain agnosticism is retained and systematized.
It would be inappropriate and ineffective
to induce others to worship one’s own Angel.
The result provides certainty to the adept,
while requiring doubt and skepticism of the aspirant.

Indeed, Magick generally, and Thelema in particular,
might be seen as a special mixture of desire and doubt
which seeks a larger world outside the iron cages
of conventional religion and rationalistic materialism.

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