A Response to Mr Stenwick

This is a response to a comment thread over at Augoeidus, and to Mr Stenwick specifically. Unfortunately I’m unable to post my full comment on his blog, because of blogger which I hate. His original post was in response to something Frater Barrabas wrote earlier, but I don’t think that’s even really relevant, because at some point the conversation drifted off (mainly due to me) into a conversation about non-practitioners in magical religions.

Mr Stenwick took the position that he doesn’t have a problem with this, although he does admit to arguing with them if they take the position that a person can be more spiritual by not practicing magic. This was my counter-argument about the damage done by non-practitioners in a magical based religion. Normally I wouldn’t post something like this, but I’m bored and want to continue this discussion. Feel free to chime in if you have anything to add. I promise I’ll come up with something practical to post by the end of the week. Been too long since I’ve had a practical article go up.

Normally I don’t care what religion a person chooses or why, but when non-practitioners practice a religion based in magic, it creates special problems. If these non-practitioners wanted to remain at the lowest levels of the religion, to grant authority to practitioners, that would probably turn out to be a good thing for Paganism as a whole. It would create a larger non-practicing parish which could be used to support things, like purchasing or renting buildings for rituals.

The problem is some of these people don’t want to remain at the bottom. Eventually they want to be in  positions of authority within the Pagan religion. After years of being a member they want to be respected for their knowledge and dedication to the religion. They want to be in positions of leadership and eventually start their own groups. They can’t be blamed for this, it’s part of human nature and makes sense, and in a non-magical religion they would have a lot of opportunity to do this.

These people then find themselves in positions of authority and leadership, and because they are non-practicing they are reliant on dogma and appeals to expert authority figures for knowledge. The problem is magical religions, like Paganism, regardless of what their true goal is, are founded on the idea of personal enlightenment gained through practical experience. You can’t have any real understanding of magic or religion, or spirituality as it is defined within Paganism, if you are non-practicing.

And this is also going to cause a rift between people who are practicing and leadership that is not practicing. You do ritual and spellwork. You cast evocations. You’re part of the OTO, and if the person leading your group constantly told you everything you know about ritual and spellwork is wrong because Crowley wrote otherwise, while at the same time admitting to never having done any kind of ritual magic in their entire life, I would guess that like most people in that situation you would reassess your membership in the group. If someone came onto your blog and insisted that you were doing evocations wrong based on something they read while admitting that they’ve never even attempted one, I wonder how long you would entertain the argument before you just started ignoring them. After all that person, without practical experience, couldn’t even begin to comprehend and understand enough about evocations to discuss the subject with you at that level.

Meanwhile these practitioners are a threat to non-practicing leadership and authority figures. They come into groups and usually end up refusing to acknowledge and respect the authority of the group authority figures and leaders, and at the same time know more about everything than the group leadership, and can actually do things magically. They can very quickly find themselves in a position where they can overtake or dismantle the group on a whim, and usually the leadership, if they’re any good at holding the group together, will realize this.

The leadership cannot fight them in terms of knowledge or ability, so they attack them the only way they can. This leads to arguments that magic is dangerous, magic shouldn’t be used, and that spirituality isn’t about magic, and magic actually runs counter to spirituality. The practitioner, especially one who shares his knowledge, becomes dangerous or unspiritual. It is the non-practicing leadership, not the magician, who is the true spiritual master.

Finally there is a lot of harm done to the community by these people. This sort of leadership breeds more of its kind. People in these groups never become practitioners if they stay with them. After all there isn’t anyone there to teach or train them how to actually do magic. If someone like that does show up, they are usually chased out and vilified. If a person tries to learn on their own, they are often told not to, scolded, and possibly vilified themselves. It’s an effort which is causing the demagification of Paganism, and threatens to do the same to other paths.

And a lot of people who are looking for actual magic end up leaving the community or giving up all together because of groups like these. They looked for magic, and all they found were groups full of non-practitioners who couldn’t do magic.

14 Responses to A Response to Mr Stenwick

  1. snaegl says:

    This is so, so true. I was a part of one of these non-magically led groups and eventually, all the magicians hived off when we figured out the leadership had their heads up their arses. It was a very disheartening experience before we got out–the upshot was that it really forced me to look at if what I was doing _worked_. Since it was, in fact, working, I voted with my feet accordingly.

    Great post.

    • Rob says:

      Thank you.

      It’s good that you were able to form an alternative group in the community too. One of the strongest attacks we can make against these groups is to form groups led by and consisting of practitioners in order to offer other members of the community a better option.

  2. I guess the difference is that I don’t necessarily consider Paganism in general a magick-based religion. I think a person could be Pagan and not practice magick, and while I personally consider practicing any religion in a non-magical manner pretty silly my point was that somebody who does so is not doing any harm so long as they aren’t trying to get others to adopt the same ridiculous attitude.

    It should go without saying that if one of these people decides to set themselves up as an authority they are promulgating their non-practicing beliefs. At that point we’re in agreement – it’s a problem because they’re teaching a bunch of stupid crap. I certainly would argue with anyone doing that and would never work with them, though that’s pretty much a non-issue because no non-practitioner would never work with me in a million years.

    The thing is, beyond arguing, what can be done about such people? I’ll freely admit that I don’t care enough about “the community” to wade into the mess myself and try to clean it up, and many Pagans probably wouldn’t listen to a Thelemite like me anyway. With my blog articles I do try to slap down as best I can the idea that there’s something unspiritual about doing practical magick, but beyond that I’m pretty much at a loss.

    • Rob says:

      Idealistically there’s nothing wrong with a non-practitioner in Paganism or any religion that involves magical practice. However in practice, it doesn’t work. If clear rules are put into the dogma of the religion in order to allow non-practitioners membership but deny them from gaining any kind of status or authority, it creates a distinction between superior (practicing) members and inferior (non-practicing) members, in which case the religion will attract few, if any, non-practicing members. Meanwhile if those rules aren’t in place, and non-practitioners are allowed and encouraged to join, a large number of them will have the ambition to eventually pursue positions of status, authority, and leadership in their religion.

      There are only three eventual outcomes that I can perceive within any religion based in magical practice that allows non-practitioners membership without restricting their status. Either the practitioners will win, and will do so by forcing non-practitioners out of their religion or from having anything but the lowest status, or the non-practitioners will win and will do so by vilifying the practitioners and forcing them out of the religion and, to the best of their ability, barring others from practicing through various means, or the third option is that the practitioners will break away and eventually form a new religion while the non-practitioners hold on to the old religion.

      As for what to do about it, I think the best approaches are providing other options, non-compliance, and discussion.

      As for providing better options, I’m a strong proponent of practitioners forming their own groups and allowing solicitation from those interested in joining. Granted not everyone is going to be able to lead a group or teach someone else, either due to time constraints or their own personality and skills, but the more practitioners we have in these positions offering opportunities to those entering the community the better.

      Non-compliance and discussion means calling these people out for what they are, and not forming alliances with them or allowing them to continue in the community unopposed. I’ve seen a lot of Pagan prides lately that have had themes of unity and diversity. I’ve said again and again I don’t agree with these themes because I want nothing to do with certain people in the community. It’s the non-practicing leadership who are the strongest proponents of unity, having a unified Pagan community and not attacking each other and not having witch wars. They are the ones with the most to gain from this position, and the most to lose if they don’t have a unified Pagan community.

      Having a unified Pagan community not only puts them into a position of power over their own group, but also opens up an opportunity for them to have a position of power and influence over all of the groups in the local area. The unification also adds legitimacy to all groups involved, since those are the groups regarded as real by the Pagan community, while at the same time making groups not part of the unification seem illegitimate since they aren’t approved and part of the local community, which in turn provides them a means to attack groups that disagree with them by not legitimizing them.

      Meanwhile actual practitioners don’t have anything to really gain through community unification. For us this is about expressing and practicing our spirituality, not about politics or charity or anything else that requires numbers, and most actual practitioners in a leadership position, at least the good ones, aren’t there to enhance their ego and gain a position of power and authority within the community. Meanwhile experienced practitioners aren’t at a huge loss if we don’t have a group, we can just as easily practice solitary and discuss things with our friends as we need to.

      I’m surprised about Pagans not listening to a Thelemite, but maybe we have very different communities. Out here the lines between Pagans and Ceremonial Magicians are already very blurred. Many members of the local OTO chapter I’ve talked to in the past, along with others I’ve met who practice Ceremonial Magic, identify themselves as Pagan, and several of the local Pagan groups are using Crowley’s books to teach magic.

      • There’s something of a split in the Twin Cities as far as the ceremonial magick and Pagan communities go, so it sounds like your area is different. I’ve never lived anywhere else so I can’t comment on what this is like elsewhere in the country.

        There is some overlap here between the two groups, since a number of the members of my OTO lodge identify as Pagan and I know a few ceremonialists who also do Pagan practices, but you don’t see a lot of it. And there are a lot of Pagans around these parts who are suspicious of ceremonialists – I guess we’re scary to them or something.

  3. KiyaraSabel says:

    And this is also how the various organized religions of the world have come to be such corrupt vehicles for oppression.

    I really feel like everyone should practice some form of self enlightenment, because everyone has a different calling, and the only way you can find your calling is through personal experience.

    While Theologians can find good study in the established dogmas and doctrines, if they are not experiencing them they are likely not to understand the importance of them.

  4. Simon Tomasi says:

    Very interesting post, thanks for sharing this. It reminded me strongly of the essay that Professor Gerschom Scholem included at the start of “On The Kabbalah and its Symbolism” in which he explores the conflict in religion between the mystics and religious authority.

    The conflict has the potential for generating a lot of new growth such as a spiritual revival that revitalizes a religion. However, it can also go the other way in particular in religions where the religious authorities have been able to back their views with martial might.

    • Rob says:

      Thanks. I’ve heard good things about Scholem, but I’ve never read any of his books despite my interest in Kabalism, but that has a lot to do with the fact that I got the impression that his views on Kabalism are centered in Jewish theology, and I prefer to approach the concepts of Kabalism from a perspective outside of the confines of Judaism.

      I don’t really see the Pagans being able to back themselves with martial might, mainly because they are still so marginalized. The bigger threat is that they’ll manage to kick out all of the actual practitioners.

      One of the biggest possible threats I foresee is Wiccans becoming entirely accepted by mainstream society in the future, and then certain non-practicing Wiccans being accepted as experts in metaphysical practices by general society and offering prejudiced views against practitioners who either disagree with their dogma or practice some other spiritual path they disapprove of. I’ve seen enough Pagans in the community who were militant about stopping practices they disagreed with or felt were dangerous or felt should be restricted only to Pagan practitioners who had achieved a high degree that I don’t think this eventuality is entirely impossible.

  5. Thank you so much for this article. So much. I’d been trying to find the right words to express these very thoughts for a long time. I’ve watched in utter disdain as a beautiful magical practice full of personal empowerment, gnosis, and direct connection with the gods has turned into yet another religion with its clergy and congregation. I no longer identify with religious paganism at all for this reason.

    • Rob says:

      Thank you. The movement for paid Pagan clergy and elder support is a whole other subject that I have strong objections too.

      • Likewise. Pagans are quickly adopting the religious form that they know best – and it isn’t Pagan, it’s Christian. Notice the words, “minister,” “church,” “reverend…?” I’ve even heard “sabbat school” mentioned all too often. I think this is happening because in the desire to look “legit” to the world around them, they’re forcing their religion into a mold that is already socially acceptable.

        It angers me, because in doing so Paganism will merely become Christianity-lite. How often have you heard a Muslim Imam say, “Maybe I should call the mosque a “church” and call myself a “minister” so that people aren’t so worried about it?”

        Of course not – because then Islam would start to lose its identity as a religion of its own. You don’t hear Hindus, Buddhists, or Jews renaming their religious terms to sound “legit.” (Nor have I ever heard a Pagan refer to her circle as a “Synagogue” either. Apparently, when looking legit, you have to mimic the dominant paradigm.)

        Getting rid of magic, I believe, is a part of making paganism look legit. It started with, “We only do good magick,” and then it turned into, “We only do magick to help others,” and then, “We don’t do magick, we ask the Gods to help work toward the highest good,” and then, finally, “We don’t do magick. We pray.”

        It sounds less scary to most people, and therefore can cast a wider appeal.

        Then again, the Craft, at least as I practice it has never been meant for the masses. I – High Priestess and Witch (NOT minister, NOT clergy) – practice and teach magick proudly and unashamedly in my coven (NOT church), and I will teach my seekers (NOT congregation, NOT students) to always do the same.

      • I think you inspired a blog post for me on my own site. I need to address this to the people I work with.

  6. […] practice. It’s not a primary concern, and as such it hasn’t surprised me when I see blog entries such as this one, which shows the deepening awareness that some pagans are turning away from […]

  7. Clair says:

    An interesting discussion is definitely worth comment. I believe that you ought to write more on this subject, it might not be a taboo matter but usually folks don’t discuss these topics. To the next! Many thanks!!

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