There is a wonderful phrase used to convey some advice to the new Neophyte in the Golden Dawn tradition. Delivered in a speech shortly after the climax of the ceremony by an officer representing Fortitude and Severity and who help keeps the powers of darkness at bay, it reads:
..let me advise you never to ridicule or cast obloquy upon the form of religion professed by another, for what right have you to desecrate what is sacred in his eyes?
I remember clearly my experience of this exhortation. It was recited impeccably and delivered strongly on the inner levels by a Soror whose outer demeanour was that of a mousy librarian, but when clothed in the Godform of Horus exuded strength and power enough to make me feel like a chestnut being slowly roasted. So this adjuration has always stuck with me. Basically, we are being charged by a pretty impressive officer-station to mind our Ps and Qs in relation to religious beliefs other than our own. A nice sentiment indeed, at least on the surface, but one I have always struggled with.
Years later, as part of my Tibetan tantric training I came across a related piece of advice all higher tantric initiates are expected to follow. The Vajrayana is clear that it is cruel to deride, castigate or cast doubts on a person’s religious or spiritual beliefs without offering them a deeper, Dharma alternative. This is because people’s beliefs and ideas about the world and the divine are often what gets them through the day, and to remove these at a stroke is considered unkind and damaging. I’ve seen this happen, and have been unwittingly part of a similar process as I describe in this post. It is not a pretty sight.
The GD injunction not ‘to cast obloquy’ needs a little unpacking. Its source lies in the Cipher Manuscripts where it is simply stated as “never condemn other religions”. However, I doubt the author(s) were referring to the type of madcap religious forms we find ourselves surrounded by the 21st century. At the extreme end of things, does this mean we never critique a religion, even when its tenants and ideology are abusive and dangerous? There are several forms of White Supremacy movements that are religious in nature and practice. I don’t know about you, but I am very tempted to cast a little obloquy their way. Do we simply accept these forms of religion? Do we, as the saying goes, respect people’s right to hold these religious views, but do not respect the religion itself?
Does refraining from ‘casting obloquy’ simply mean to shut our mouths like good girls and boys, while actually thinking certain religions are nuttier than a squirrel-baked nut cake? That might be fine if these religions were confined to living rooms and run down meeting halls, but often the more fruity a religion is, the more it is determined to enforce its views and ideas upon society, especially the non-believers. Do we say and do nothing in the face of religions that preach oppression and hate? As Edmund Burke said, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Personally, I say, bugger that for a lark and have no problems laying into religions of hate and oppression, obloquy notwithstanding.
At the less extreme end of things, I started thinking more about this issue a week or so back after posting on Facebook that I was surprised that some magical folk still referred to ‘the Burning Times’ as a factual series of events, where Pagans were persecuted by ‘the church’. Nick Farrell, in his normal wise manner, responded by saying, “It is an article of religious faith a bit like the virgin birth.” If this is so, and I think Nick is technically correct, then have all my previous articles and postings back to 1989, where I critique the Burning Times as myth not history, been casting a little bit of obloquy? I certainly have been firm in my opinions.
Does the fact that people are consciously or unconsciously holding something as a ‘religious truth’ bar us from saying how stupid it actually is? Do we worry about offending them, or take heart from Stephen Fry:
It’s now very common to hear people say, “I’m rather offended by that”, as if that gives them certain rights. It’s no more than a whine. It has no meaning, it has no purpose, it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. “I’m offended by that.” Well, so fucking what?”
My own take on all this is a little subtle and I try to take into account as many factors as possible – mythic and literal. I have no problem with religious myth when it is seen as just that – religious myth to make sense of the universe and deepen our relationship with the Mystery, the world and each other. When however myth it is seen as real space-time events, I get a little edgy and my obloquy starts to rise :). Take for example the two cases mentioned by Nick above – the Virgin Birth and the Burning Times. While they may be useful mythically, to view them as ‘real’ events is another matter and one that flies in the face of common sense and all evidence and which requires all sort of denials and doctrines to explain it all.
The Burning Times myth tells us ‘nine million’ people were burnt during the Witch persecutions of early modern Europe which were directed at existing and remnant ‘pagan’ religions. To maintain this as ‘true’ we have to ignore or claim conspiracy on the vast amount of evidence that places the number of executions as between forty and a hundred thousand, the vast majority of them of Christian folk, and the executions often organised by secular and local authorities, not state imposed Christianity. I’m sorry, but if you insist on these things as PHYSICAL FACT, then you may find a little obloquy and a few frowns coming your way.
As Nick goes on the say, the idea of nine million people being killed at this time is preposterous as it represents a fair chunk of the population. If there were nine million Pagans back then, the effects would of their practice and religions would still be with us and would have influenced our society in obvious ways. I will admit when I first came across the nine million figure as a teenager, I did not have these deep and nuanced reactions. My first thought was, “that’s an awful lot of wood”. You see, as a kid I was deeply affected by the line from ‘Good King Wenceslas‘, “When a poor man came in sight, gathering winter fuel” and the image of a peasant with sticks on his back to make his fire. I looked it up and found, despite Hollywood imagery, there was not an easily accessible abundance of ready firewood back then. And it takes a lot of wood to burn someone – which is one of the reasons why ‘witches’ were hung not burnt in England. So I was dubious about the nine million bit from the start 🙂
Similar problems arise with the Virgin Birth and Mary’s Perpetual Virginity. To claim that as PHYSICAL FACT Catholic theologians had to come up with all sorts of doctrines, including explaining how the baby Jesus moved through the birth canal and out of the Mary’s vagina. Basically, Christ is assumed to have a transcendent power which enables Him to move through physical barriers at will, just like a superhero. This is what the Council of Trent concluded:
He is born of His Mother without any diminution of her maternal virginity, just as He afterwards went forth from the sepulchre while it was closed and sealed, and entered the room in which His disciples were assembled, the doors being shut…
On a mythic, metaphorical level, the meaning behind the Virgin Birth has many profound implications and avenues for esoteric explanation. However, it and the doctrine of Perpetual Virginity have rightly been seen as contributing to the creation of the Madonna-Whore complex and fostering all sorts of misogyny. So I find it hard not to critique this piece of religious doctrine since it has implications and damage far beyond those mature adults who have consciously chosen to ascribe to it. Should I take the advice to avoid obloquy to mean I should refrain from voicing such criticisms, because they are religious?
The myth of the Burning Times has, as far as I can see, no profound esoteric meaning that rescues it from the pile of ‘ideas-to-let-go-off’. It does mythically link contemporary neo-Pagans who are mostly free to practice whatever modern religion they like, with a persecuted minority who held fast to their ancient faith. But what use is such a mythic linking and identification? I can see how useful it is to have mythic links back to ancient wisdom traditions, Atlantis and wot all, but why the persecution? To me this is just plain silly and if it’s casting obloquy on religion to say so, then I guess I am not holding fast to the advice I received all those years ago.
What say you?