Every summer in high school I worked summers at a Boy Scout camp near San Marcos, El Rancho Cima. My third summer there, between Junior and Senior years of high school, I became a pagan.
I know it's kind of an odd place for it to happen, considering how conservative and Christian the BSA is as an institution, but it's full of high school kids, and there's a lot who do not tow the line. I also got drunk and high for the first time while working at camp, but those are different stories.
Anyway, that particular summer I made friends with a guy named Brian H. who hadn't worked there in previous years. He was a Wiccan. As he explained to me, that meant that rather than the kind of church I was used to, his religion was all about nature, with a God and Goddess, which were balanced more than the single father god of Christianity.
This blew my mind. I asked him about the Greek gods, and he explained to me that the various pagan gods of all cultures were aspects of the God and Goddess, like different masks that they would wear for the benefit of the different needs of different cultures. The gods were distinctive spirits that were different personalities of the cosmic all, the life force that made up the universe, divided into God and Goddess for balance, light and dark, yin and yang, but not good and evil, since both had their good and evil sides, like we humans did. The best part was that he also told me that magic was real, and through ritual we could make things happen, either ourselves, or by asking the gods to intervene for us. They just asked for offerings of juice or food, left out for them. He explained that of course the offerings would be eaten by animals or whatnot, but that was ok, since animals were part of nature, and since the gods were of nature, they'd get it.
To me, this was fantastic. I had been reconciled to the fact that Greek religion was dead, that no one actually worshipped the pagan gods anymore. Now not only did I find out that I could worship the Greek gods if I wanted to, I could worship ALL of the gods. They were all real in some way. He recommended that if I wanted to find out more, there were books I could check out. Well, as established, I didn't need to be told twice.
That weekend when we went into town, I found Living Wicca: A Further Guide for the Solitary Practitioner by Scott Cunningham at Hastings, so I snatched it up and devoured it. It was a sequel, apparently, but that didn't seem to matter. Apparently I didn't need much, just some candles, incense and some Fruitopia that I saved for a libation. I lit the candles and incense (sandalwood, which I still like) and said a short little prayer dedicating myself to Athena, always my favorite goddess, being both an awesome warrior and a goddess of wisdom. And so it began.
I was having a good time. I enjoyed the hell out of ritual, especially on the occasion when it seemed to work, sometimes with disastrous consequences. For instance, I was requested to conduct a ritual to help relieve stress in one of my friends by his wife, and as a result, he quit his job. I was a bit shocked he would do something like that, but he ended up going back to school, and eventually becoming a teacher, so it worked out in the end. Now, of course, I don't see any real significance to the ritual. If he was stressed out enough at work that his wife would request my help, it's not much of a stretch to predict he was on the verge of quitting anyway. There were plenty of other rituals I did that were either for goals so vague that it was impossible to nail down a result, or simply didn't produce anything at all. No one ever said that every ritual worked, however, sometimes the gods just didn't want to help. They were well known to be fickle, so it was easy to shrug off the misses.
I was starting to waver on the whole religion angle, however. Try as I might, and as relatively benign as they were, I just couldn't really believe in the God and Goddess, or the literal existence of any of the other gods. I had good evidence (HA!) that magic itself worked, and frankly I was more interested in that anyway. I had heard rumors amongst the other pagans that I knew of something called ceremonial or high magic which was supposed to be the advanced stuff, and really overly complicated. Most of them shunned it, preferring the relative simplicity and innocence of paganism, but unlike them, I had no real sense of devotion to the gods. I was much more interested in getting things done. In essence, I wanted power, and I also wanted more structure in ritual. Pagan ritual was kinda rough around the edges and while it had its good parts, it didn't have enough in the way of formal robes and other costumes, fancy symbols on the walls or altar, and not enough fancy jewelry. High magic had all that in spades, so deeper down the rabbit hole I went.
I started with Modern Magick by Donald Michael Kraig. His book is a great intro to the subject, kind of a high magic equivalent of the book I replaced Cunningham with, The Complete Book of Witchcraft by Raymond Buckland, otherwise known as Uncle Bucky's Big Blue Book. This was exactly what I needed. It was constructed in 11 lessons, starting out with basic relaxation and visualization exercises, moving on to elemental weapon construction and banishing rituals, up to evoking angels and demons and charging them to accomplish tasks for you via symbols engraved on medallions, looking up the equipment needed for ritual in tables of correspondence to make sure you had the right elemental, planetary, and zodiac colors, incenses, etc.
Ritual magic is a beautiful system of nested heirarchies seemingly specifically designed to keep a certain kind of mind highly entertained while accomplishing absolutely nothing at all. It was my kind of mental masturbation. I went from Kraig's primer to the hard stuff, Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn rituals, on to Aleister Crowley's Thelema, all the time the rituals and symbolism getting more sophisticated and complicated and the meaning more and more arcane. Crowley's motto for his publication The Equinox was "The Method of Science, the Aim of Religion". For years, I was fooled into thinking that was what I was doing.
It wasn't all bad, of course. Buried in this pile of Arcana are some genuine pearls of wisdom. I still find Crowley's Liber Oz to be one of the most succinct and elegant statements on freedom ever written. Crowley does encourage one on many, many occasions to be skeptical of one's own results, and to document everything one does in one's magical diary so that they have a record of past results to compare present ones to, and to revisit past insights to re-examine assumptions when new info comes in, etc. He even put various traps in his works meant to trip up those who weren't as disciplined in their approach to magick as Crowley would like. Obviously as the founder of a religion and someone who regarded themselves as a Prophet of a New Aeon (the Aeon of Horus, the forerunner of the newager's Age of Aquarius) he was still a bit of a supernaturalist, but he made a greater effort than others I was familiar with, and I have to give credit to Crowley for being one of several sources within occultism itself that put me on the path that eventually led me out of it.
Ceremonial magick was all well and good, but as with paganism before it, it was getting tiresome. I still liked the fancy rituals, but my success rate from workings was no better than it had been before, and nothing seemed to do anything to improve it. This is around the time that I found chaos magic.
Chaos magic was to ceremonial magick as Black Flag is to Pink Floyd. It's loud, it's brash, it's punk as hell, and it has no use for centuries of tradition, it just wants to get down to business. You don't need all that planetary bollocks, you can make up your own symbol systems on the fly. Chaos magick primarily uses sigils based on the methods of Austin Osman Spare, a former associate of Crowley's who was a celebrated artist at the beginning of his career, and gradually descended into obscurity and poverty. He did fantastic art that prefigured a lot of the surrealists, but he also had his own system of magic. His notion was that one could write out a statement of intent, such as I WISH TO POSSESS THE STRENGTH OF A TIGER, and then craft a sigil out of the letters. Here's an example of some of Spare's sigils:
One then takes the sigil, focuses on it while putting oneself into a trance state (called gnosis) and the theory goes that by doing this, one's subconscious is able to get the magic done for the chaos magician without all that pesky awareness and anticipation getting in the way. Chaos magicians often banish by laughing at themselves after engaging in such an act, because it's patently ridiculous to expect to achieve results this way, and taking oneself too seriously is what ceremonial magicians do.
Chaos magicians also engage in a practice called paradigm shifting. What this entails is that you do everything you can to put yourself into a different mindset than your natural one, if you're a Republican, try to think like a Democrat, if you subscribe to Fortean Times, go read the Skeptical Inquirer for a while. The idea is to transcend the idea of the self, and to realize that you are a collection of conditioned reflexes and habits, in all that you do, and paradigm shifting is a way of attempting to hack your own self-illusions and come out the other side a more well-rounded person. I still consider this kind of thing a valuable exercise to engage in periodically, myself. There's no real supernatural bullshit attached to it, it's a good way to broaden one's perspective. So again, while the results of my sigil activities were still stuck at the same success rate as before, little to none, and nothing that couldn't be explained via coincidence or selective attention, I was continuing to become more skeptical, while still practicing magic. But my magical practice was becoming less and less about supernatural forces and entities and more about ways of fucking with my own head, to break myself out of my illusions. For this, even more than chaos magic, I have a huge debt that I owe to Robert Anton Wilson.
Robert Anton Wilson is the guy who wrote the Illuminatus! Trilogy with Robert Shea back in the 70s, the greatest conspiracy novel ever written as far as I'm concerned. It's a huge piece of ontological anarchist agitprop that starts out as a crime novel, quickly wraps itself deeply in the lore of various conspiracy theories, and goes on to simultaneously champion and mock pretty much all of the sacred cows of the occult, the new age, the UFO heads, the Kennedy assassination theorists, and every possible fringe group one can think of, and many that one can't. If you haven't ever read it, I highly recommend it, although upon first reading it tends to make one's head spin. It's like a Mannlicher-Carcano bullet made of LSD-25 ricocheted into your perceptions, and was exactly what I needed.
Wilson, both in Illuminatus! and his other works like Prometheus Rising and Cosmic Trigger advocates militant agnosticism about EVERYTHING. Everything we interact with passes through many filters before the signal is eventually interpreted by our brains and then propagated to our conscious awareness. These filters include both the physical organs that transmit the signals themselves and the various cognitive biases that we use to interpret information. So often, we filter out what we don't expect to see, or manufacture things that we do want to or expect to see. Anyone who's undergone this Basketball Test has had this demonstrated to them. Wilson would conduct tests where he had two people come into a room, one would stab the other, and afterwards leave. Wilson would ask how many people saw the knife, usually getting a lot of them to agree, only to have the the "knife" revealed as a banana.
In Prometheus Rising, Wilson offers an exercise early on in the book. He says that if nothing else, this exercise, done long enough, will pay for the price of the book. As you go about your day, think about quarters. Visualize yourself finding quarters lying on the ground. When you actually do this exercise, as I have, lo and behold, you will find quarters all over the place. The question is, did you make the quarters appear, or did you find them because you had primed yourself to look for them by thinking about them? Wilson's point is that all of us use various webs of expectation and prejudice to deal with the world we live in. He calls these maps, and reminds us not to confuse the map for the territory. Question all assumptions, all assertions, and always remember to question your own maps most of all. Allow for the possibility of all things to be true, because you never know.
So between chaos magic and Wilson's model agnosticism, I was a lot more skeptical than I had been for a long time, but still, there was a problem. The problem with being agnostic about everything is that it leads to a kind of solipsistic existence, where you're not sure about anything ever. Basically, questioning is good, but you can't really get to a point where you know anything. Wilson shoots himself in the foot in this manner by being too willing to uncritically accept certain types of claims. He ends up justifying some aspects of Christian Science in some places because rather than the placebo effect being what it is, a useful effect to test the effectiveness of real medicine, he confuses it for something that can be relied upon to heal people via mind over matter thinking. Wilson even wrote a whole book on CSICOP called The New Inquisition because of his inability to recognize that agnosticism is only the beginning position of the search for knowledge, not the end point.
Eventually I joined the Temple of Set while still retaining a lot of my agnostic positions. I had a good time, met a lot of great people, and participated in a lot of fun, but again, the actual tangible results of my magical work were negligable. I don't feel the need to go into too much depth about the Temple here, because it's not especially relevant to this tale of my journey from paganism to skepticism. Perhaps in another post sometime. I do mention it, however, because the Temple did provide me with the tool that eventually led to my leaving the organization and having the epiphany that allowed me to finally drop my attachment to the supernatural.
The Temple of Set has a huge, multi-category reading list full of books on a wide variety of subjects from ancient philosophy to history to political science to psychology and satanism (it being an offshoot of the Church of Satan) and a plethora of other interesting subjects. Buried in that massive list is The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, by Carl Sagan.
I don't know who got it put on the list, but whoever he or she is, I thank them profusely. I already knew who Carl Sagan was, of course, I'd seen and read Contact, I'd seen bits and pieces of Cosmos, and seen him on tv a lot growing up, talking about science. He was one of the people who when I saw them on a show, I always stopped and watched, because it was going to be good. I may have been a pagan and an occultist, but I never got rid of the love of science I had engendered in me early on, as covered in the early posts in this series. I had never heard of this book, and I dutifully bought it on one of the many shopping trips I made to add to my collection of Temple reading list books. Unfortunately, it ended up sitting on my shelf for years, unread, until I finally got around to it.
A year or so before I left the Temple, my active participation wound down to barely anything, simply due to other people being busy with their own lives and whatnot, and I wasn't doing much magic anymore anyway. I was spending most of my time working and dealing with the back problem (herniated disc) exacerbated by work. At some point, I came across The God Delusion in a bookstore, and I figured I'd check it out. I knew Dawkins from The Selfish Gene which I had bought years ago as a chaos magician because I was interested in memetics. The memetics section was the only part I'd read (I've since read it multiple times, and I'm considering pursuing biology as a result, but that's another story). I'd also seen The Root of All Evil and liked it. Ever since the experiences when I was younger, I either didn't believe in God or I wished he was real so I could kill him, so Dawkins riffing on JHVH and the Christians, Muslims and Jews was just fine with me. So I read The God Delusion happily, got a big kick out of it without really considering it relevant to my own odd perspective on the supernatural, and when I finished, I was looking for something else in that vein. I ended up finding Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, and I read and re-read their stuff over and over. Eventually, I decided that since the Temple wasn't doing much for me anymore, it was time to leave, so I emailed them politely that I was resigning.
Curiously, after resigning, I actually felt a brief resurgence of magical enthusiasm, and I started to reengage with a strain of magick I had enjoyed, early hermetics based in Graeco-Roman Egypt, Alexandria specifically, in the early Christian era. As I was researching neo-Platonism again and working up an alternate Greek Qabalistic Tree that I was going to create, I was still engaged with reading the atheist books. I had also been introduced to the Point of Inquiry podcasts shortly before I left the Temple when Don Webb, a former High Priest of the Temple was interviewed, and I was working my way through the backlog of episodes. After hearing Harris and Dawkins interviewed, I picked up and re-read The God Delusion in audiobook, and when I was done, I recalled that Dawkins had quoted from Carl Sagan in the book, and my eye fell upon The Demon-Haunted World. Time to read that.
This was exactly what I needed. Sagan broke it down, again and again, exactly what I had felt was missing from my Wilsonian agnosticism. I didn't have to be satisfied with my solipsistic illusions. There were ways of finding out the truth. From the Dragon in my Garage to the baloney detection kit and beyond, this was exactly the shot in the brain I needed. I applied the critical thinking skills I got from that book to my own residual superstitions. My conception of deity was indistinguishable from an invisible dragon in the garage. My own seldom effective magick was a mix of cognitive biases, wishful thinking, and placebo effect. I recognized in depth a lot of the same behaviors described within the book in myself and my fellow occultists.
Carl Sagan basically handed me the tools to recognize that I had spent the last 17 years or so telling myself comforting lies and fantasies, and that I didn't have to do it anymore. I was free. Finally, I was free.