The latest crypto-facist circle jerk, er… discussion between John Crow and Keith 418 centered around the controversy over whether or not Thelema “is” a religion. This question became a popular topic after Sabazius’s latest offering. As usual, Keith’s answer had little to do with the substance of the question. Basically, since Crowley said in Magick Without Tears “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,” that means it’s not a religion. The people who are promoting the idea of Thelema as a religion are doing so because they want to be fat, middle class weekend magicians.
(As a side note: what prejudice is more acceptable to the middle class these days than hatred and disgust of fat people? But I digress…)
Thelema, he pronounced, is more of an ideology, which is “more threatening.” Sweet. So instead of irrationally believing in the Holy trinity I can irrationally believe in the protocols of the Party. There’s never been any “stupid kind of mischief” arising from ideology, has there?
But read the whole chapter the above quote comes from. Specifically the beginning. Here Crowley paraphrases his couplet:
We place no reliance
On virgin or pigeon;
Our Method is Science,
Our Aim is Religion.
He then goes on to detail what this means. That the “aim” is to “attain knowledge and Power in Spiritual matters.” Then he makes it quite clear that he is addressing the common conception of religion when he says, “But this is certainly not the sense of the word in your question.”
So, what was his notion religion, and was it valid? The arguments both for and againstboth make reference to Crowley’s views on the subject, but never attack the main question: is Crowley a reliable authority on the topic of religion to begin with?
The sources linked above, as well as the chapter from MWOT both make it clear that by religion, Crowley means “Christianity.” This is the only religion he appears to be familiar with, and his main source, Frazier, came from the period in the academic study of religion when every other faith was either a “superstition” or some pale reflection of the One True Faith.
And “faith” is the key element that people harp when they argue that Thelema is not a religion. The only religion in the world which requires “faith” as such is Christianity. Islam is submission to Allah as God and Mohammad as His Prophet. Buddhism certainly doesn’t require faith. People coming from a Christian-based culture look at other belief systems, other religions, and see their conviction as a variation on the belief in the unprovable that the religion they are most familiar with demands. It’s not the same animal. In most, the existence of God is taken for granted, and in Buddhism the fact of Enlightenment is concretely present.
But, if Thelema is not a religion, what is it? Other than Keith’s assertion, which we will table as idiosyncratic, the other possibility is the one that Buddhism gets saddled with: Philosophy. Okay, what’s philosophy, then? Oh, wait, another long discussion that revolves around a thousand definitions trying to gain the upper hand.
Really, the answer is no further away that the root of the word, “religion.” At heart, it means “re-linking.” In religion, we return and connect to the Source of our own being. Which, brings to mind the refrain from Eight Lessons in Yoga “Yoga is Union.” Religion, taken from this perspective, is a way of connecting with the Spiritual Source, of orientating oneself in terms of that. As far as I’m concerned, this is the most valid definition, since it can cover all cases.
So, if by “religion” one means “something like Christianity,” then no, Thelema is not that. But if religion is conceived as a way of connecting with a Spiritual Source, Thelema doesn’t make any sense without such a quest. It may be an esoteric religion, but a religion Thelema remains.
(As a final aside: there would be very good reasons for the O.T.O in particular to promote the idea of Thelema as a religion, even were the above not the case. It’s a legally incorporated body whose main activity consists of a bunch of people getting together in funny robes to chant at a naked woman. Think that’ll fly if it’s not called a religious activity?)