Essays of Note: In Defense of Magical Beliefs, Religious Satanism, and Loki Trouble

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  May 31, 2011 — 33 Comments

I’d like to highlight three excellent essays worth checking out today.

In Defense of Magic: Andrew Sullivan points to an excellent essay by Jessa Crispin, editor and founder of Bookslut.com, that talks about the endurance of religion, of irrational beliefs, of magic, in a seemingly rational and increasingly secular age. In the process she discusses two new books, Ronald Hutton’s “Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain,” and Nevill Drury’s “Stealing Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Modern Western Magic”.

“Wasn’t the Enlightenment supposed to wash the world of its sins of superstition and religion? And yet humanity keeps clinging to its belief systems, its religious leaders, and its prayer. More than that, we’re dipping back into the magical realms — one would think that if superstition were to be eradicated through the power of reason and rationality, magic would be the first to go. It turns out our hunger for the irrational and the intuitive is more insatiable than previously assumed. We have our Kabbalah, our Chaos Magick, our Druids. We have our mystics and tarot card readers and our astrologers on morning news shows explaining why Kate and William are a match made by the gods. Wicca is a fast growing religion in the United States, and my German health insurance covers homeopathy and Reiki massage, both of which have always felt more like magic than science to me.”

The whole thing is well worth reading, a defense against the atheists who have trouble acknowledging that these beliefs fill a need in us, while owning the excesses and subconscious drives that fuel adherence to illogical practices.

Believing in Satan(ists): Erik Davis reprints an essay he wrote on religious Satanism, reviewing a 2009 scholarly anthology edited by Jesper Aagaard Petersen entitled “Contemporary Religious Satanism: A Critical Anthology”. I was particularly drawn to his critique of the elasticity of the term “Satanism”, and how that might matter to modern Pagans.

“While Peterson makes a good claim for the relative elasticity of the term Satanism, there are problems with the term that become more apparent the farther the topic departs from LaVey’s legacy. Though the figure of Satan has been drastically recontextualized, his name and essential iconography still fundamentally imply an oppositional or even parasitic relationship to the broader Judeo-Christian tradition. But as the transgression of Christian norms loses its spunk, and as the broad course of Neo-paganism and contemporary ritual magic reframe occult practice within more eclectic, global and, increasingly, “shamanic” contexts, it is inevitable that the specifically Satanic current loses some nominal coherence. In this sense, the splitting off of Michael Aquino’s Temple of Set from LaVey’s Church of Satan in 1975 is paradigmatic, as Aquino replaced LaVey’s cocktail-sipping devil with a more sober and recondite Egyptian god. Should Setians still be called “Satanists”? If the answer is yes, aren’t scholars running the risk of shoe-horning darkside practitioners and metaphysicians into a homogenous framework that unintentionally parrots fundamentalist Christian exegetes for whom Odin, Kali, and Harry Potter are all masks of a single Dark Lord? If the answer is no, does the “Satanic milieu” that the contributors to this volume have done such a fine job of clarifying lose broader explanatory power?”

The blurry ground between “post-Satanic” belief systems and modern Paganism hasn’t really been fully explored. “Dark” (or “Nocturnal”) Paganism has become a marketing term in recent years, and I believe more study is warranted on the intersections of subculture, Left-Hand Paths, post-Satanic systems, and modern Paganism. As for Davis, I highly recommend his most recent collection of essays entiled “Nomad Codes: Adventures in Modern Esoterica”.

The Substance of Thor (and Loki): Over at Killing the BuddhaEric Scott, who recently shared his mixed feelings over marketing Nordic gods in “Valhal-Mart,” shares his review of the Marvel Comics film “Thor.”

“My understanding of the ancient Germanic myths revolves around two themes. The first is that virtue consists of equal parts strength and wisdom. The second is the Germanic worldview of an entropic universe, where civilization will always fall into ruin. Beneath its hammy, explosion-filled superhero veneer, Thor deals with both of these themes. Thor’s character development exemplifies the first, as we watch the bold and foolish prince grow wise. Loki exemplifies the second: despite his good intentions, Loki falls, becoming a monster in the name of ending monsters.

So what should pagans take away from this movie? Certainly not mythological accuracy: if you only knew the myths, most of the film will probably seem nonsensical. I admit that the mythological discrepancies still leave me conflicted, if only because they drastically alter the relationships among some of these deities. But I left the theater feeling much better about Thor than I expected; while it may not get any of the surface right, it captures a surprising amount of the substance. Thor gives us the glories and the tragedies of Norse mythology, if we’re willing to abide a little trickery in the delivery. Loki would be proud.”

For more on “Thor” see my roundup of religiously-themed takes on  the film. You may also want to check out all of Eric Scott’s essays at KtB.

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    Bookslut: "As if a man’s [Yates'] belief system could be so easily plucked out of his life and his creative output would remain the equal."

    I've seen and rebutted this line from atheists who arrogantly assume that noted Scientist X could have done so much more excellent work had he (usually he) not been hobbled by religious beliefs. A beautiful (if that's the word) example of "reasoning" without evidence, from the supposed palladins of our "rational" age.

    I used to be in that bag and gradually found myself leading a joyless existence. Then the Goddess whapped me upside the head and everything was different and better.

    • http://heathenfaith.blogspot.com/ NorseAlchemist

      Had Issac Newton not been an alchemist (work he considered far, far more important than anything he's well known for) it's doubtful we'd have many of the things he is known for in "Modern Science."

  • http://badocelot.com badocelot

    As a fellow "lapsed atheist," I really enjoyed Jessa's article. It's sad to think that that we find ourselves still fighting against monoculturalists, and from all sides, no less. Paul Feyerabend once beautifully skewered this attitude among scientists and philosophers with one of my favorite lines ever: "Hardly any religion has ever presented itself just as something worth trying." The antithesis of that line, that a way of life is always just "something worth trying" and never the One True Way(tm) is one of my guiding philosophies.

  • coloradocelt

    Excellent article. But if you find yourself inspired by Druid/Celtic belief systems and culture, YOWCH. I have not read the book by Hutton that she mentions, but I can say that she leads her readers to believe that the concept of "Druid" is a bunch of made up hooey. Be well read on this subject I have never run across a single historian who denies that the Druids ever existed!

    That aside, she makes an excellent case for the fact that believers and non-believers are fueled by very different needs and may never understand each other. I know I have met my far share of crusading atheists who are far more dogmatic than some evangelicals I know. Funny that.

    My favorite line, "And yet the atheists keep on, telling us that we don’t have to believe in God. It maybe never occurred to them that perhaps we want to." Yes it is true, I want to believe. Belief, it's not just for Fox Mulder anymore.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      "she makes an excellent case for the fact that believers and non-believers are fueled by very different needs and may never understand each other. I know I have met my far share of crusading atheists who are far more dogmatic than some evangelicals I know."

      Having been on both sides of that divide I maintain that the gulf is not so great. I was not an evangelizing atheist (Humanist, I called myself) and I am not an evangelizing Pagan. I'm utterly confident that a militant atheist who had a conversion experience for Christ would become a militant Christian.

      I did have a passionate connection to the greater universe as a Humanist, through science, in particular evolution. I became a Pagan with an image of the Goddess as the living planet Earth/Gaia. Until I learned some ritual the biggest outward change in my behavior was calling the Earth "she" instead of "it." Where once I had talked enraptured *about* the Universe I learned to talk, still enraptured, *to* the Universe.

      • Syna

        Lovely, lovely description.

        I have met many such evangelizing atheists and rationalists, but I find that quite a few of them are open to personal spiritual experiences– the kind that Pagans prioritize.

  • http://egregores.blogspot.com/ Apuleius

    As a first order approximation, a crude negation of Christianity provides the seeker with a remarkably workable starting point. This is the secret to the appeal of both Satanism and Atheism.

    Christianity:
    Only the Christian God is to be venerated. All other Gods are either imaginary or, if real, are evil Demons.
    Negation of Christianity:
    Only the Christian God is either imaginary or, if real, an evil Demon; while all other Gods are to be venerated.

    Christianity:
    Sex is bad. The human body is disgusting. The physical world is corrupt and composed of dead matter.
    Negation of Christianity:
    Sex is good. The human body is beautiful. The physical world is alive and intrinsically sacred.

    Christianity:
    Only Christian teachings are true. All other religious teachings are deceptive.
    Negation of Christianity:
    Only Christian teachings are deceptive. All other religious teachings are true.

    Christianity:
    We are born in sin and we are all miserable sinners.
    Negation of Christianity:
    "There is no part of me that is not of the Gods."

    Christianity:
    It is OK to use violence to force people to accept your religious beliefs and make them abandon their own beliefs.
    Negation of Christianity:
    It is NEVER OK to use violence to force people to accept your religious beliefs and make them abandon their own beliefs.

    Christianity:
    We are born once.
    Negation of Christianity:
    We are born many times.

    And so forth.

    • http://badocelot.com badocelot

      As a rough evaluation,

      1. This is a real problem in the Pagan community.
      2. This one is awesome and to be encouraged. :-)
      3. Again, a real problem.
      4. Awesome.
      5. Awesome.
      6. Awesome.

  • Varkald

    I don't know about you guys, but walking through stores and seeing foam Thor's Hammers- shaped exactly like the one I'm wearing around my neck- and seeing actual Runes etched on them, and seeing action figures of "Ice Giants" presented as bad guys and enemies of Thor, makes me think that something great has happened, regardless of how bad or good the movie is.

    • thelettuceman

      Sure, if you consider hypercommoditization "great".

  • http://secher-nbiw.blogspot.com Cobalt

    Disclaimer: I practice Wicca and have for years, but am an atheist. This may seem weird, but it's sort of like being a Christian without believing the world was created in six 24-hour days. However! Not the point. Just wanted to give a disclaimer that'd make it clear I'm not opposed to religious practice just because I have a problem with faith.

    I'm mainly posting because it sounds like people here have a hell of a lot more conversations ABOUT atheists than with them (or have only been in dialogue with atheists the way theists want to be "in dialogue with" me when they come to my door). It seems like this because evidently Jessa Crispin (and I guess at least some of her readers) think atheists are running around shouting, "PEOPLE HAVE NO EMOTIONAL ATTACHMENT TO THEIR BELIEFS. WISHFUL THINKING IS NOT GRATIFYING IN ANY WAY."

    I mean, seriously. Have any of you ever spoken to an atheist who wasn't well aware that people really want very badly to believe claims that aren't supported by evidence? If so, it sounds like you found the one atheist in the entire world who has never spoken to a theist.

    Seriously, we get it. Wishful thinking happens. The difference in values between people with a fondness for magical thinking and people who rely on evidence (as I discovered when I was still a theist but my partner was an atheist) is best summarized by a quote from P.C. Hodgell. "That which can be destroyed by the truth should be." Not everybody believes this, which is why some people think that unsubstantiated claims about the universe should be believed because believing is good for you somehow, and not because they are true.

    I've talked to a lot of atheists and a lot of theists (hi, anthropologist here) and near as I can tell this is the divergent value. Atheism isn't itself any kind of claim or dogma, so it's hard to pin down the people who lack faith and group them together, but this is the closest thing I've found to a maxim most atheists would recognize that is not widely recognized by people who AREN'T atheists.

    • http://badocelot.com badocelot

      "I practice Wicca and have for years, but am an atheist. This may seem weird, but it's sort of like being a Christian without believing the world was created in six 24-hour days."

      No, that is nothing like being a Christian who doesn't take Genesis literally. You can call yourself what you wish (here we go again!), but in more common terms you're an atheist Witch, not an atheist Wiccan.

      I mention this because it really detracts from your credibility, which really hurts given how awful your actual reasoning is.

      "Have any of you ever spoken to an atheist who wasn't well aware that people really want very badly to believe claims that aren't supported by evidence?"

      No, but I have run across several atheists who think theists can just dump their beliefs like moldy food.

      Seriously, leaving behind such beliefs is like a getting a divorce — even those who think theism/marriage is an outdated concept need to admit that it's usually a traumatic experience. Your life isn't the same afterward, and it isn't always better.

      "The difference in values between people with a fondness for magical thinking and people who rely on evidence (as I discovered when I was still a theist but my partner was an atheist) is best summarized by a quote from P.C. Hodgell. 'That which can be destroyed by the truth should be.'"

      I'll see your Hodgell and raise you some Feyerabend:

      « "Truth" is such a nicely neutral word. Nobody would deny that it is commendable to speak the truth and wicked to tell lies. Nobody would deny that — and yet nobody knows what such an attitude amounts to. So it is easy to twist matters and to change allegiance to truth in one's everyday affairs into allegiance to the Truth of an ideology which is nothing but the dogmatic defense of that ideology. »

      People who like to speak about "truth" in the abstract have very rarely delved into the issues surrounding it, and usually just think they have the Truth(tm).

      In my opinion, given my reading in philosophy, atheists have never come up with a coherent epistemology that actually makes theism look intellectually disrespectable. Unfortunately, a lot of atheists don't realize this because they get their skepticism on the cheap, either ignoring the actual philosophical issues involved or clinging to failed epistemologies like empiricism or logical positivism.

      • Baruch Dreamstalker

        Why should atheists try to make theism look intellectually disrespectable? Darwin made atheism intellectually respectable by providing non-supernatural answers to some "Where did all this come from?" questions. Trying to make the other side look intellectually disrepectable is beating a dead horse; the ineffable cannot be proved but neither can it be disproved.

        • http://heathenfaith.blogspot.com/ NorseAlchemist

          Except that Darwin was actually a fairly religious man.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            Yes. You win the non sequitur award of the day.

      • http://secher-nbiw.blogspot.com Cobalt

        If you think empiricism is a "failed epistemology," I don't even know how to discuss reality with you. The idea that we should not base our conclusions about reality on evidence we get from rigorous observation is so foreign to me that I can only imagine how you get through your daily affairs.

        Furthermore, orthopraxy is frequently more important among Pagan groups than orthodoxy. Provided my practices are in line with my tradition (which they are, at least if you ask my high priest and high priestess), I don't have to believe in the literal truth of all the stories. To put it the way another atheist friend of mine did, he said, "Oh. So you're a Wiccan like I'm a Jew." Practice without faith is possible, and I'm surprised that this not-so-subtle nuance hadn't occurred to you given how important it evidently is to you to think of yourself as a refined thinker.

        Seriously, though, to get back to my point, skeptics are well aware that people who believe in magic are doing so because they want to. The conflict is that skeptics don't hold with the idea that wishful thinking is the same thing as accurate observation of reality.

        • http://badocelot.com badocelot

          You're just showing your own ignorance of philosophical terminology.

          Empiricism fails as an epistemology, not as a methodology. What failed was the attempt to make empirical observation a privileged foundation for knowledge, as opposed to one out of many sources for knowledge.

          It fails in part because it only makes sense in light of three dogmas: the analytic/synthetic distinction and reductionism (both identified by W.V.O. Quine in "Two Dogmas of Empiricism") and the scheme-content dualism (identified by Donald Davidson in "On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme"). Remove those, and empiricism is reduced to the trivial point that observation is a really good source of knowledge. But hardly anybody doubts that, no matter what their philosophy.

          Meanwhile, Davidson provided an excellent alternative/challenge to empiricism in his essay "A Coherence Theory of Truth and Knowledge," in which he demonstrates that even having beliefs about a thing requires most of those beliefs to be true. This is because while it is possible to be wrong about this or that aspect of a thing, being mainly wrong about it means you've confused it with something else, something about which most of your belief are true (even if that thing only exists as a concept in your head).

          This approach subsumes the truth empiricism without raising the skeptical doubts that plague empiricism, such as the "brain in the vat" scenario. We may be wrong about anything, but not about everything. Unlike foundationalist approaches, there is no need not try to purify one's beliefs by justifying them against more fundamental ones: you can start where you are and simply try to increase the coherence and utility of your beliefs.

          Furthermore, there is no particular justification for targeting beliefs about the existence of a thing for presumptive doubt, because the belief "X exists" is just one (fallible) belief among a set that is mostly true.

          What riles me is this arrogant better-than-thou attitude you display, when in fact you obviously don't know what you're talking about.

          • Syna

            You are my hero for explaining this in depth. It's really incredible how few rationalists read philosophy; most do not seem to understand that empiricism has been under heavy critique for centuries now.

          • Syna

            lol, I mean "rationalists" in the colloquial, "believes reason is the sole arbiter of everything" sense, not the historical philosophy sense. It's been a good year or two since I thought about this!

          • http://badocelot.com badocelot

            Almost off-topic, but this nearly had me in tears with laughter: http://bit.ly/jxGjbI

  • Daniel

    The problem with the Enlightenment is that it created a false dualism between Mind and Heart, Rationality and Emotions–it created a thought process where wonder and emotions are greatly devalued. This has been the bane of our thinking ever since…adversarial dualisms with no hope of an ontological depth or synthesis. The fact that religions, concepts and experiences of divinity and magic persists, is that they were never defunct in the first place. Rather their tenacity to persist reminds us of another factor of the human experience long undervalued. There is an old Gaelic proverb that goes: "It is in the neglected or unexpected place that you will find the lobster."

  • http://www.facebook.com/rritzer Ron Ritzer

    I still insist that the Thor lover who holds the mythology close to his heart should read the Walt Simonson run of the comic. Also, I would recommend that to those who love magic and mythology in general take a close look at the Thor comics character creator and artist Jack Kirby, creator of the New Gods and The Eternals.

    • Eric Scott

      Two of my personal heroes. Is Simonson's run available in trade paperback yet?

  • http://badocelot.com badocelot

    Grr, "no need to try to", not "no need not try to." Stupid long posts…

  • James Delaney

    I'm sure the Thor movie was fine. I'm sure the comic books were fine, but the ancient Norse religion, and its modern expression, are very, very different things. If this is what modern pagans have to look forward to- finding spiritual depth or events of great gravity in comic book movies- we have a case of grasping for straws here which is two degrees below bad. We'll know the modern pagan movement has gained seriousness, depth, and roots the day it doesn't leap at every shadow from pagan history, or at every thing that is remotely shaped like its various spiritual yearnings, and keeps its cards closer to its chest.

    • Druidwood

      I agree I like the movie "The Craft" but what I didn't like was almost over night you had teenage girls running around in goth make up casting spells on people. Everytime I hear a movie that someone says "hey this will increase an intresting in paganism" I cring. I got flammed when the artcle on Thor came out I was & still am against it being as way to get people intrested in paganism. They don't seem to understand that these types of people get the wrong impression from said movies & run with it. There is no talking to them about how wrong said movie is by then it's too late.

    • Druidwood

      BTW I loved the movie for what it was looking forward to the Avengers movie!

  • http://vermillionrush.wordpress.com Vermillion

    OOH they put out an omnibus?! Thanks for that notice NA, I'm off to drop that sucker in the to buy pile!

  • Pitch313

    I don't take the gods and goddesses presented in comics seriously. But I do take comics seriously. As well as Goddesses and Gods.

    And I find the concerted effort not to believe in god and goddesses somewhat irrational and funny. Likewise, the concerted effort to hold our world to such a high standard of rationality and logical order that we get crazy about it.

    Are the contortions of Economic Man any less deceptive of Reason than those of Spiritualist girls?

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    I did not make any effort to portray Darwin as an atheist.

  • Malaz

    The last time I read this, I couldn't comment.
    Is anyone aware the DSM? It still states that "magical thinking" is psychological disorder…maybe it's the right moment to begin a campaign to have that removed (or reworded) as well???

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      I just asked my resident DSM reader about this. Magical thinking is the belief that one particular changed circumstance would permanently change one's life for the better. Eg, if one had the child of the man who shot Osama bin Laden, one's life would be perfect thereafter. (If the party is of a religious bent, that child will be the next messenger of God.) It has nothing to do with spellcasting or the spiritual sensation of walking through the woods.

    • http://badocelot.com badocelot

      I think getting the DSM's definition of "delusion" changed is a more important goal at the moment. It might also be easier, considering there have already been cases of wrongful institutionalization just because a doctor decided a patient was delusional, such as the "Cat Man": http://nyp.st/4Ag65V