Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Is Thelema a Religion?

One of the hottest topics of debate currently going on in the Thelemic community is the definition of Thelema. Is it a religion, is it a philosophy, an ideology, or some hybrid of these concepts. The head of the O.T.O. is heavily pushing this idea as well as others, but many people disagree. The debate is further complicated by the fact that Crowley gives various answers to this question. At one point saying yes it is and still at other times saying no it is not, most notably in Magick Without Tears.

First lets define our terms.

Religion - a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

Going by the definition of religion Thelema doesn't fit very well. Beliefs is a poor word choice. Thelema presents a set of ideas but you are never asked to believe them, rather test them and see if they are true or not true. "Success is thy proof." Further Thelema does not concern itself with the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, but rather the nature and purpose of the individual. Although it does contain a moral code of conduct centered upon the will.

This being said Thelema does exhibit many of the qualities we expect from a religion. There are gods or godforms. There is a central holy text. The Book of Lies could be considered a Thelemic version of The Book of Proverbs and Lber LXV and other "holy" texts similar to The Book of Psalms from the Christian and Jewish religions. There is a group ritual similar to the Catholic Mass and even prescribed daily adorations like the Muslim Salah.

The problem is with the use of words. We use them so often we forget that they are nothing more than symbols used to convey ideas. That symbols can have different meanings for different people and different contexts. This is especially true for such a loaded word as religion. It can be even more dangerous than a loaded gun.

The symbolic meaning and context has changed over time. During the Aeon of Isis "religion" was nature based. It was centered around the relationship between man and his environment; animalism, totemism, and the like. During the Aeon of Osiris this focus shifted to the relationship between man and the group; temple priests, the Church, and the congregation. Now that we have entered into the Aeon of Horus the focus is upon the relationship between man and himself.

If you use the word Religion in the context of the new aeon, then yes you could justifiably call Thelema a religion. The problem is the Aeon of Horus is so young, only a little over a 100 years, that most people's context, even most Thelemites, is still in the last aeon. With this in mind it is easy to see why Crowley said calling Thelema a religion would "cause a great deal of misunderstanding, and work a rather stupid kind of mischief." Even if you are a self described Thelemite, but still have an old aeonic context, then the word religion would bring a lot of excess baggage with it that would not be helpful and most likely harmful.

To avoid the clash of symbolic contexts it is best to say that Thelema is not a religion and be done with it. If the majority sets the context then Thelema is not a religion. This will of course change as the new aeon matures but not in our lifetime. The Aeon of Horus still has another 1,900 years, give or take a few centuries, and a lot will happen before it ends. Until then I think it is best to self describe Thelema as an Ideology.

Ideology - An ideology is a set of ideas that discusses one's goals, expectations, and actions.

It seems a much better fit for Thelema concerning our current contexts.

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