Category Archives: Religion & Spirituality
This book is a transcript of several conversations that took place between Joseph Campbell, an expert on mythology, and Bill Moyers, journalist. Campbell compares myths across cultures, looking for similarities, in an attempt to show us the importance of myth as man’s way of understanding his relationship to the world in which he finds himself. In essence, if a particular myth reappears in different cultures and epochs, chances are it represents a universal truth about mankind.
Myth is essentially a means of modelling reality using symbols. And when you think about, that’s exactly what science is, too. This point was not covered by Campbell, which I thought was a startling omission – perhaps left out because he does not share this view. Campbell laments modern man’s lack of meaningful myths, whereas I see science as the modern myth unrealised. Man cannot escape myth, because all attempts to explain reality are done by modelling the universe. And even in science, our models change over time as we learn new things that cast old assertions into disfavour – just as the old gods are now replaced my more meaningful symbols of forces in natures: electricity and atmospheric pressure in place of Thor, the god of thunder, for instance. Sadly, this insight, which I personally find vital to my worldview, was not covered.
Even so, I was mesmesised by the breadth of Campbell’s knowledge and his ability to articule it without preparation, when prompted by questions. The book covers so much ground that it’s hard for me to pin down exactly what I got out of it, but it was definitely a unique and special read. Of particular interest to me was the notion that the modern man finds mythological significance in movies and television dramas. When I look back at old films and TV series that have endured in my mind as favourites, this is definitely true. Some of my favourites are Mad Max, The Prisoner, Blake’s 7, The Tripods, Forever Knight. The common denominator in all of these is the man who finds himself as an outsider, an individualist, a non-joiner, for reasons that are varied. There is the man who becomes a loner because of his brokenness, the secret agent who refuses to have his will broken, the cold realist who is not quite one of the good guys, the group of boys who fight against a brainwashed society, the vampire who attempts to better himself and conquer his nature. It’s not so much that myths were deliberately built into these fictions; only that it’s possible to draw mythological significance from them. Take Forever Knight, for instance. To many, it’s a tacky story about a vampire cop. To me, it’s about a man who is striving to be fully human – to conquer the beast (his vampire nature) within. He has done awful things in the past, but he remains ever cheerful. Tacky or not, this myth speaks powerfully to me as a human being, because it symbolically mirrors my own strivings.
When talking around the question of what life is all about, Campbell regularly employs the phrase “Follow your bliss,” which really stuck with me. It captures perfectly my own feelings about how the meaning of life is not one thing in particular, but consists in making of life whatever we want to make of it. A multiplicity of potential experience is open to us, but we can only follow one course. It makes the most sense, then, to follow the course that brings you the greatest sense of fulfillment: follow your bliss.
I hold a personal philosophy that I’ve developed through much study over a period of years. It could loosely be called non-dualism or pantheism. I’m always amazed when I read a book and discover that the author totally gets where I’m coming from, using certain words and phrases that reveal his inner depth. This was the case in the final chapter of The Power of Myth, entitled “Masks of Eternity.”
If you’re the sort of one-dimensional rationalist who is stuck with an entirely scientific outlook, presuming that ancient man’s beliefs were just exercises in silliness, you need to read this book. These interviews were also released as a six-part television series (now available on DVD), which might be an even richer way to enjoy them. However, the book does contain more content than the series. The Power of Myth is a book unlike any I’ve read.
This book is quite hard to find, not for any particularly esoteric reason. I imagine there simply weren’t that many copies printed and no one has yet produced an ebook of the text. The publisher is Hell’s Kitchen Productions, which might be the Church of Satan’s own self-publishing imprint. I was lucky to find a second-hand copy on eBay for £20, but the lowest price among the current ten copies listed on Amazon’s used books is £60. Owning this book now completes my collection of official Church of Satan literature. The other works are five books written by Anton LaVey, a biography on LaVey by Blanche Barton, and one book by Peter H. Gilmore (LaVey’s successor).
Blanche Barton, the author of the work under review, was Anton LaVey’s live-in partner for the latter part of his life, and the mother of one of his children. LaVey was, of course, the founder of the Church of Satan. This slim volume of 170 pages provides a brief history of the Church, beginning with some short biographical notes on LaVey’s carnival and occult background, leading to his reasons for forming a new religion based on man’s carnal nature. The growth of the church is catalogued, from its beginnings as a Friday night get-together at LaVey’s home, where he would lecture on the occult, to the eventual implementation of a nationwide “grotto” system. One of the most unfortunate aspects of LaVey’s earlier life is some of the claims are provably legendary. I personally find it a bit insulting that Barton reiterates these legends for her readers, especially when her intended readership seems to be Church of Satan members, rather than the general public. Michael Aquino’s Temple of Set gets a few jibes, as Aquino was responsible for splitting the Church of Satan in 1975. LaVey and Aquino spin that event in different ways, and its hard to tell who is entirely honest about what went down. Aquino’s claim that the Church of Satan ended in 1975 would seem to be a tad pretentious.
There is much material in the book that I have encountered before, but also some interesting new material, such as clarifications on the practice of ritual magic. The timing of the book’s publication puts it right in the middle of the Satanic Panic, a period of unprecedendent public hysteric about occult crimes against children. The phenomenon is rationally and effectively debunked.
The real strength of the book is the huge amount of direct quotes from LaVey himself. These are not from other printed works and public interviews, but presumably from Barton’s own conversations with the man himself. The quotes are so voluminous that LaVey could really be considered a co-author.
If you’re already familiar with Satanism, this book will serve as a refresher on the fundamentals, with perhaps a few new insights. For those who are not familiar with the philosophy, this is definitely one of the better books to read initially. Shame it’s so obscure.
I have quite an extensive knowledge of Christianity, but I thought it was high time that I educated myself on other world religions. A broad knowledgebase is essential in helping us to discern truth from error. But few of us have the time to study masses of information about many fields of inquiry. In the matter of religion specifically, I was instantly attracted by this book’s size (123 pages, illustrated) and the breadth of subject matter covered.
Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism are all covered in some detail, going into the history, basic beliefs, and culture of each religion. Around 16 large-format, heavily illustrated pages are devoted to each religion. Double-page spreads are also given over to the lesser players in today’s religious climate: Zoroastrianism, Confucianism, Taoism, Shinto, the Bahai Faith, etc. Finally, modern religious movements are covered.
This was the perfect book to fill a particular hole in my knowledge. It’s aimed at schools, but the information is by no means dumbed down. Highly recommended for readers who want to get a feel for world religions fast.
When browsing the “body, mind, spirit” section at my local bookstore, I am frequently disappointed by the books that I flip through. A lot of teachers of non-duality (or “advaita” as it’s called in the East) are quite disappointing, in my view. They are not grounded in a realistic appraisal of what it means to be a human being living in a physical world that is essentially adversarial. Spirituality becomes something that is divorced from the predicamenet of fleshly existence, and so it ultimately fails to deliver the promised goods. The Mystery Experience, by contrast, was a refreshingly realistic book. In the store, I read bits and pieces randomly from the text, and came across lots of little gems of wisdom about all kinds of things. I was really intigued by some of the chapter titles, such as “Mad Scientists Do Mysticism,” “The Ego as Hero,” “Celebrating Separateness.” And so, I had to get the book.
Tim Freke is very much in touch with the earthy, carnal side of life. Life is not about denying the body, or about subduing the ego, or about avoiding attachments. Life is to be lived fully, as an adventure. At the same time, Freke is in touch with the spiritual side of life, with an understanding that consciousness is something transcendment, and that under the surface we are all one.
In the book, Freke invents a new term called “paralogical” which he defines to mean two things that appear equally true but are incompatible with each other. It reminds me of what Stephen Hawking calls “model-dependant realism” – the view that we may have more than one model of reality, depending on our perspective, and that each model has merit within its particular context of observation, while the models themselves are in conflict with each other. Of the two authors, I would have to say Hawking explains it better (in The Grand Design), and I’m honestly not sure that the word paralogical helps in any way. It feels as if it almost gives us license to remain complacent about our paradoxes, failing to realise that it’s only our approximations of reality, gleaned through our inadequate models, that contain paradoxes, not reality itself.
I do have a few criticisms of Freke’s approach. He’s very much a believer in the importance of an “awakening” experience, whereas I feel this is too similar to the Christian idea of salvation. I don’t believe there is anything broken about natural life that needs fixing, even our natural belief in duality. Tim also puts a lot of emphasis on techniques as a means of deepening your spirituality. My view is that if you need a technique to convince yourself of something, then something’s wrong. When a truth becomes clear to the mind, it needs no repeated technique to constantly renew it. Freke also verges on the melodramatic when talking about love. I tend to think love and hate both have their place.
Don’t make too much of my criticisms, because I really did enjoy this book. I took it slow and savoured it, reading a few pages each night at bedtime. The writing was vibrant, easy to read, personal, and practical. In keeping with the title of the book, Freke places a huge emphasis on the mysterious nature of the ground of being. The “mystery experience” is the conscious appreciation of this impenetrable mystery at the heart of life. Freke’s writing on this theme helped me to deepen my own perspective on what I call the Infinite.
It saddens me that Eckhart Tolle gets all the fame, while guys like Tim Freke are little known by comparison. You might say that Tolle belongs to the “escape from life” branch of non-duality, whereas Freke belongs to the “embrace life” branch. The philosophy advocated by Tolle pales by comparison to this. I highly recommended The Mystery Experience, and it’s a book I’m likely to read again in the future.
Here in the West, we’ve all grown up under the influence of Christianity, where God is viewed as a divine monarch. Little do we realise that we only picture God in this way because we’re unconsciously projecting an entirely human political structure onto him/it. Watts’s book challenges this, by describing the very different concept of God that has arisen in the East, specifically Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism. To the Hindus, the Universe is viewed as God play-acting, or dreaming each of us. God is inside everything rather than above everything. It’s like a game of hide and seek; each one of us is God-in-disguise without realising it. In Taoism the Universe is viewed as a single organism (indistinguishable from God). Watts helps us to look upon the Universe in a very different way, not as a collection of separate things which exist independently of one another, but as a series of interconnected relationships. These Eastern approaches differ greatly from the likes of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, because they are not concerned with divine revelation, or obedience to a monarch. In this sense, they are not really religions at all, in terms of what we understand religion to be. The focus of the East is a transformation of consciousness. Learning to look upon the Universe in a different way that dramatically affects one’s life.
This volume consists of various verbal lectures given by Alan Watts, transcribed by his son Mark in the 1990s, from earlier recordings. The lecture “The Mythology of Hinduism” examines the religious side of Hinduism, where the godhead is said to be dreaming each of us. “Eco-Zen” delves into how the individual is one with the world, showing how the line between organism and environment is blurry and insubstantial when we get past the idea of “things.” “Swallowing a Ball of Hot Iron” examines the relationship of student and master in Zen Buddhism. “Intellectual Yoga” looks at the mind as a path to enlightenment. The volume finishes with “Introduction to Buddhism” and “The Taoist Way of Karma.” This is not a lecture series, as such. Mark Watts draws together material that spans his father’s career into single book of related topics.
Since this is the fourth book by Watts that I have read, I’m starting to notice a lot of overlap, but that’s unavoidable, and actually serves as a reminder of important insights. I continue to be impressed with this philosopher, and I have a better undersatnding of the Universe as a result of his work. This book provides a short and often humourous brief on Eastern philosophy. It’s certainly not detailed enough for the serious student, but as an introduction, it makes perfect reading.
Alan Watts is a non-dualist, as am I. Among those who think in this fashion, opinion is divided on the helpfulness of psychedelic drugs in the quest for enlightenment. Watts is in favour of their use, although he cautions that such experiences are wasted on those who do not approach the activity with a philosophical mindset.
Personally, I’ve never felt the need to take drugs in order to heighten my awareness. The human organism is working perfectly just as it is, and I’ve been able to grasp very deep things about reality from an intellectual perspective, and to feel these insights so deeply that I doubt drug use would be of any benefit. Many have congratulated me on my ability to talk and write about things they have felt but been unable to articulate; one individual even expressed great surprise that I have managed to comprend life to such a deep extent without resorting to drugs. My suspicion is that psychedelic drugs are merely a shortcut – something that takes the hard work out of the endeavour of understanding our place in the cosmos. And the drawback of such a shortcut is that it can leave the user stunned by glimpses of a deeper reality without any ability to communicate what he has experienced meaningfully to others. He feels a lot intuitively about what he went through, but cannot process it mentally. Since I haven’t dabbled in drugs, I’m doing a little guesswork here, but I hope intelligent guesswork.
The Joyous Cosmology is Alan Watts’ attempt to articute his psychedelic experiences in words. He never had hallucinations, except when his eyes were closed and he allowed his visual cortex to run amuck. In normal consciousness, the effect of drugs was to heighten perception. The simple act of gazing at a flower takes on far greater significance. Ordinary things became objects of incredible wonder. As I said, I think it’s possible to cultivate this appreciation without resorting to drugs. In fact, the author’s endeavour to capture his experiences in words attests to that.
Some people who are interested in non-duality have a strange view about life: they’re trying to “awaken,” to experience the underlying oneness. But if your individual mind were able to experience unity with everything, then it’s still the individual mind experiencing something separate from itself – still in duality. Any experience of oneness brought about by meditation or drug use will only be a halfway house, by virtue of the ever present subject-object (dual) relationship of consciousness. So, if that’s why you want to take psychedelics, you might as well forget it. What you seek can’t be accomplished.
The main aversion I have about mind-altering drugs are the toxic effects of drugs in general, especially when used habitually – which the author does not advocate. If you’re thinking about using a psychedelic drug for “spiritual” purposes, first educate yourself with this book and others. For me, this whole endeavour is of little practical value, because I’ve already achieved something the hard way. Still, a highly interesting book.
This is a very different look at Christianity from how it is commonly understood. It says that Christianity is not so much a historical faith of God’s actual dealings with mankind; it is mythological in character, telling a story with symbols – a story that is told, not just in Christianity, but in the core teachings of all of the world’s religions. I suppose you might call this Mystic Christianity. The idea is that you have to get past all the dross of conventional religion to find the nuggets of truth that are intuited at the heart.
Is there anything to this notion? Well, yes, at least to a degree. For instance, consider the prevalence of the number 12: twelve tribes of Israel, twelve disciples of Christ, etc. The significance of this is the twelve months of the year, with the sun (Jesus) at the centre. The notion of the incarnation (God becoming man) is viewed, not as a historic event that happened once for all time, but as a symbol of the divine and earthly natures of all men. We are all both God and creature. To comprehend this, you have to appreciate consciousness as something more profound than how it is considered within the constraints of materialistic science.
Before reading this book, I was already in touch with hints of what Watts’ explains. The idea of God having two natures (Father and Son) was not as absurd to me as it is to most atheists, because I had already come to appreciate that consciousness has metaphysical roots that are non-dual. There is little-me here in the material realm and big-me running the show from beyond space-time. But both are me.
While this was an interesting read, and by far the strangest book on Christianity I’ve delved into, I’m not sold on the idea that there is any value to be had in attempting to restore Christianity to some sort of mystic relevance. Christianity, for the most part, has long been interpreted as a historical record of God’s dealings with mankind. The idea of convincing the world that it is better treated symbolically can only happen after the world has been convinced that it is non-historical – at any which point ex-believers will be disenchanted at having been conned all their lives and will have no wish to translate the fictions of their imprisonment into symbols of genuine metaphysical worth. At least, that’s how being an ex-Christian makes me feel. Perhaps Watts’ approach to Christianity will have some relevance to a lapsed Catholic who has been trying long and hard to make something good out of it.
I personally feel that the way forward for metaphysics is to lose all religious and spiritual garb and to integrate with modern scientific language. For instance, understanding man as the Infinite focused to a point of limited awareness within space-time. That works a lot better for me than talking about man realising his godhood through his union with Christ the God-man.
An interesting and unique book, packed with a staggering amout of research by way of footnotes. But ultimately of no more value than a historical curiosity.
I was attracted to this book by its subtitle: “Punk Rock, Monster Movies & the Truth About Reality.” The odd combination of spirituality and mundanity appealed to me because I have a profound distrust of the kind of spiritual teacher who puts on a pretense of living on some higher wavelength of reality. I used to read a lot of David Icke, and much as I now disagree with many of his views, I still love the down-to-earth “spirituality with balls” attitude that he maintains. He was never ashamed to get pissed off, to swear in public, to trample on tradition, and to question authority.
In the same regard, Brad Warner didn’t disappoint. I smiled when the author poured scorn on all the pomp and ceremony that is attached to Buddhism, without losing sight of the value of the philosophy itself. And I found Zen Buddhism to be surprisingly agreeable.
The universe desires to perceive itself and to think about itself and you are born out of this desire. The universe wants to experience itself from the point of view of a tree, and so there are trees. The universe wants to feel what it’s like to be a rock, and so there are rocks. The universe wants to know what it’s like to be a famous Austrian body-builder cum film star and so there is Arnie. We don’t know that rocks and trees have an idea of “self,” and it doesn’t matter one way or the other. But we do know that human beings like you and me and Arnie believe in the existence of “self.” And this belief is the root of all of our problems.
Some might view the above assertsions as absurd, but I completely get the idea of duality as an expression of a more fundamental non-duality. In Eastern terms, I could say that I believe in the Advaita branch of Hinduism. But I’m damned if I can see any fundamental difference between Advaita and Zen – except that Zen has an emphasis on meditation as the principle means to enlightenment.
The type of meditation advocated in Zen Buddhism is pleasantly basic. It’s called “zazen” and it’s basically all about sitting still. There is no requirement for mantas, or specialised technique. The purpose of zazen is to open yourself to your true self. Given enough practice, it is claimed that we will be confronted with everything we’ve repressed.
There’s a really interesting chapter where the author makes a strong case against the idea of seeking enlightenment through psychoactive drugs. Another where he shows the error of belief in reincarnation. For the most part, I found my own views echoed and reinforced throughout the book. But the one chapter where I learned something new and important was “The World of Demons.” This was an alarmingly honest discourse on human nature – especially its nasty side, and how we should relate to that socially unacceptable part of ourselves. This chapter was so good that I went back and read it a second time, after finishing the book.
This is one of the more important books I’ve read in recent years. I don’t know that I would call myself a Zen Buddhist, but I am definitely keen to try zazen, even merely as a means of daily centering myself. It’s something I’ve always neglected, perhaps to my detriment.
The usual argument you hear from religionists about morality is that unless you derive your values from a higher power, then those values are objectively meaningless. What right has one man to say to another that his actions are morally wrong, when they are both merely men making personal judgements?
That said, Harris’s target readers in this book are not religionists, but scientists. He maintains that science has, for too long, steered clear of this issue, and in doing so has allowed religion far too much leeway. Harris’s premise is this: the consequences of our behaviours have an objective impact on the wellbeing of conscious creatures, therefore ethics is a matter of objective scientific inquiry. Measuring our actions against this basis is something that we do unconsciously anyway. Well, unless we are a psychopath, that is. (And the book does include a very eye-opening section on psychopathy that doesn’t pull its punches.)
Back when I was a Christian, I knew better than to use the moral argument for God’s existence. I understood that atheists had every right to refine their behaviour in light of the impact of their actions – for purely pragmatic reasons. But sadly, there are still Christians who will use this argument – totally blind to the fact that every other social species in the animal kingdom is able to get along just fine without a divine lawgiver.
My view of ethics differs somewhat from Harris’s, although he writes with such precision and clarity that his assertions had a profound effect on my perspective, helping me to refine it. Before reading this book, I understood that the primary function of ethics was the refinement of natural instinct in the interests of personal survival; ethics that included the wellbeing of others were ultimately for the benefit of the self. However, after reading The Moral Landscape, I gained a fresh perspective on altruism. I came to understand it as the flowering of the survival urge (not something that Harris explicitly asserts). When personal survival is established to the point where there is abundance, that same urge blossoms into an interest in the wellbeing of others less fortunate. To state that another way: we must be good to ourselves before we can be good to others.
I also disagree with Harris’s assertion that we should be able to come up with objective values – clearly defined “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots,” if you will. I don’t think it can be that simple; each unique situation merits individual consideration. For instance, in the interests of my survival, I know that I would not act in the same way in a post-apocalyptic world as I do in present-day Western civilisation. In the former, I might have to kill to survive, whereas in the latter, it’s likely I will get through my life without doing much harm to anyone.
The main downside to the book was Harris’s assertions about free will. He views it as an illusion. One of the main problems I have with atheists is that they tend to be materialists, and materialists make a pretense of understanding consciousness. Harris unfortunately makes this same error, turning human beings into little more than automatons, despite the fact that we feel our “selfness” very keenly. They key to understanding this lies in differentiating the mind (which is physical) from the pilot of the mind (which is metaphysical). A lengthly discussion of this is beyond the bounds of this review. Faults aside, The Moral Landscape is an insightful book that has the power to be transformative.
The first book ever to be written on the subject of satanic ritual abuse (SRA) was Michelle Remembers in 1980, co-written by Michelle Smith and her psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder. Over a period of one year, Pazder records hundreds of sessions where Smith allegedly recovers repressed memories of herself as a five-year-old undergoing a prolonged period of ritual abuse at the hands of a satanic cult. She is tortured, sexually abused, locked in a cage, witness to murders, and painted in the blood of sacrifice victims. At one point, a Satanist sews horns and a tail into Smith’s flesh. The scars left by this surgery would have proved invaluable in authenticating the account, but there is no such evidence on Smith’s adult body.
The ceremonies were gory and bizarre, and bore no relation to the rituals of the Church of Satan. Nevertheless, Pazder wastes no time in naming this specific organisation as the perpetrator of Smith’s abuse. He also states, in total ignorance of known facts: “The Church of Satan is a worldwide organization. It’s actually older than the Christian Church.” Pazder was forced to withdraw his assertion of the Church of Satan’s involvement after the book’s publication, when Anton LaVey threatened to sue for libel.
As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Smith’s idea of Satanism suffers from the same faulty assumptions as Doreen Irvine’s account (see From Witchcraft to Christ); she depicts Satanists as worshippers of the literal devil of the Bible. The rituals are filled with pointless, nonsensical, sinister elements, and horror movie trappings, including at one point the appearance of a monstrous spider crawling across the altar cloth and a vampire bat with claw-tipped wings perched on the altar’s edge. In the final quarter of the book, Satan makes regular appearances in the flesh. And Smith’s depiction of him is an all-out horror movie cliché, right down to the horns on his head and the claws on his hands. Curiously, he has a pig’s snout and sports a tail that occasionally shape-shifts into a snake. Fire sprouts from his back. Amusingly, Satan insists on continually speaking in rhyming verse throughout the account:
The knife is ready. It is time to begin.
It has been poisoned and sharpened very thin.
I confess that when I began reading this book, I seriously considered that this child might have been the victim of some deeply unethical occult group. But by the time I finished, the entire tale had made a nosedive into total religious farce. In addition to enduring the devil’s bad poetry, Smith witnesses heads spinning, just like Linda Blair in the movie The Exorcist (1973). Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and the Archangel Michael appear to Smith at various points during her dark days in the ritual chamber. Absurdly, Mary sprinkles her sentences with French, which would not have been her native language, nor is it Smith’s. The two authors’ combined depiction of Satanism seems to be a fusion of their own Catholic prejudices and Pazder’s past encounters with unusual religion from when he was working and living in Africa in the 1960s. He goes as far as drawing this comparison himself in the book. It’s hard to see how Pazder maintained any credibility with his peers after publishing this unconscionable mix of psychiatry and superstition as fact.
It also turns out that some of Smith’s claims are provably false beyond reasonable doubt. Early in the story, she is allegedly involved in a car crash that is staged to look like an accident, as a means of the Satanists getting rid of a dead body. Conveniently, it happened so long ago that police and hospital records of the event were destroyed at the time of Smith’s therapy. However, Pazder overlooked the fact that it’s possible to check the newspaper records in library archives. No such incident was reported around the time indicated by Smith’s testimony.
The book features a photograph of a mausoleum at Ross Bay cemetery, at which a ritual allegedly took place. However, when this building is snapped from different angle (as another photographer has demonstrated), the mausoleum is revealed to be within eyeshot of suburban houses. Maybe the Satanists used one of Doreen Irvine’s invisibility spells!
Towards the end of the book there is an eighty-one-day non-stop ceremony. Yearbooks from Smith’s elementary school have revealed no indication of her being missing for a lengthy period of time.
There are many more problems with Smith’s account that I could raise, but these examples suffice to destroy her credibility. All that remains is to determine whether she is delusional or an outright liar. The coherency and detail in her account causes me to side with the latter.
Even without the evidence against Smith and Pazder, the simple fact that nothing can be corroborated ought to raise warning bells in the minds of readers. But many people have never made the mental effort to learn what criteria they ought to use in determining truth from falsehood. People tend to believe things if they merely feel true, or if they simply want to believe. The ability to believe claims in the absence of evidence is how witch-hunts are born. And in this instance, that’s exactly what happened.
Michelle Remembers opened the floodgates for countless reports of satanic ritual abuse. Pazder was considered to be an expert. He became involved in the Cult Crime Impact Network and lectured to police agencies about SRA during the late 1980s. By September 1990 he had been consulted in more than a thousand ritual abuse cases.
Closure of the Satanic Panic finally came with the publication of the Lanning Report (1991) by the FBI. Three hundred cases of multi-victim, multi-offender SRA were examined and no physical evidence of abuse could be found. Aside from the occasional unethical pseudo-Satanist, there was no evidence whatsoever of any underground occult organisation engaging in SRA. This document can be read in full on the internet. Conspiracy theorists still like to keep the phenomenon alive. I read this in an online forum: “The Lanning Report is load of pig shit, if you ask me. Written by the same people it claims ‘do not exist.’” Of course, the conspiracy theorist doesn’t require actual evidence of the FBI’s involvement in a cover-up; the mere suspicion of it is enough to warrant belief.
During the years of the Panic, the lives of many law-abiding Satanists (and other non-satanic occultists) were subjected to the judgements of a dangerously ignorant population (including its law enforcement) that was feeding on a diet of sensationalist propaganda.
By contrast, the uncovering of real, verified, widespread child abuse within the Catholic Church has to be one of the most spectacular reversals of expectation in history, as we discover that real evil lies within those who masquerade as the good, rather than those who merely enjoy the glamour of sinister symbolism.
The Satanic Panic must never happen again. That will only be possible through the widespread triumph of reason over superstition.
Uniquely, I’m someone who first read The God Delusion as a Christian and now I’ve read it for a second time as an ex-Christian. In my first reading, the book didn’t convince me to abandon my faith. Looking back on my original review, I still concur with many of the points I raised in criticism of it. You see, I was no idiot as a Christian. And this is part of the problem with Dawkins’s book: his tone, from the get-go, is that you’re a moron if you believe in God. He characterises the most profound dilemma of my life as foolishness.
Dawkins does not get why people gravitate to religion. He has never understood the view that human nature is broken. This is the driving force that causes people to seek salvation, redemption, spiritual awakening, etc. The feeling that there is something incomplete or malfunctional in man, such as “original sin.” When a religion addresses this need, that is why people flock to it. And this deep psychological attachment then becomes the reason why the religionist cannot be reasoned with. I now believe the view of human nature as “fallen” to be erroneous, but this key issue is not even addressed by Dawkins’s book and it is the very cornerstone of religion.
The God Delusion can basically be split into two parts, each comprising roughly fifty percent of the volume. In the first half, Dawkins makes the argument against God from an evolutionary perspective – the view that complex things are always formed out of simpler things. This is the basis from which Dawkins argues that God, if he exists, must have been something incredibly simple, because a vastly complex God would have required a creator, in the same manner that the theist argues the universe requires a creator. In arguing this way, Dawkins simply does not get what is meant, philosophically, by the idea of a “first cause” or an “uncaused cause.” It is a reference to something wholely outside of the constraints of space-time, something formless and timeless that encompasses all that is in the material realm – something wholely other. I confess that, as a Christian, I gave up on the book at this halfway point, because Dawkins failed to make his case in laying the groundwork.
The second half of the book is mostly concerned with slamming religion as a force for evil. Much of what Dawkins says is true, and a torch should definitely be shone on it all. The trouble is, the Christian is not overly concerned with the atrocities done by others, or the horrors done in the past in the name of Christ. The Christian sees his religion as a personal relationship with God, and his only concern is his own standing before God. And if the Christian feels that his religion is beneficial force in his own life, that’s primarily what matters. A great deal of what Dawkins says will sit in the mind of the Christian reader as a huge ad hominem argument against religion that will have no effect.
One very controversial moment in the book was Dawkins’s suggestion that it might be a good idea to prevent parents raising their children in a religion, on the grounds that such indoctrination is a form of child abuse. I don’t know which is scarier: the idea of parents controlling the education of their own children, or the state dictating it.
The God Delusion only scratches the surface of the problem of religion. The tone and content serve as little more than an effort at mutual atheist backslapping. An expert in evolutionary biology, who attempts to tackle a bigger subject that inevitably strays into philosophy and metaphysics, only reveals how out of his depth he is.
In fairness, I’ve concentrated on the negatives, but there’s a lot in this book that is good. It’s just not nearly good enough.
My guess is that only one in every hundred Christians takes the time to look into the foundation of their religion in any detail. Josh McDowell’s book, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict, is written for such conscientious students, who wish to be able to hold a rational case for their faith when under fire from sceptics. The book also serves as a great information source for anyone, whether sceptic or believer, who wishes to become more informed about Christianity. It is a titanic work of around seven hundred pages. Even that figure is deceptive, because if not for the dual-columns and tiny typeface, this book would be more like a thousand pages. The “New” of the title relates to the the book’s prior publication as a smaller edition, with a later sequel. Both volumes are now brought together as one, with revisions.
I approached this work as a sceptic, but as an open-minded sceptic who is willing to be changed by what he reads, not as one who is simply aiming to reinforce his scepticism. Although I was confident in my stance, I still had many gaps in my knowledge about Christianity. I’m happy to say that I now know a great deal more, and I’ve had some of my opinions changed, as a result of reading. Beforehand, I tended to view the person of Jesus as someone who had no historical substance, but now I’m quite confident that there was an influential first-century figure who had followers and who was executed for his religious troublemaking.
As I was reading, I was trying to ascertain where the real crux of the case for Christ lay. It’s essentially this: what should we do when we come across the presence of the supernatural in a historical text? The sceptic may say, “This is contrary to experience, therefore unhistorical,” whereas Josh McDowell maintains (and I paraphrase), “We must treat all historical texts on equal terms, without judging the value of a text based on an anti-supernatural bias.” I maintain that both approaches are extremes. If the supernatural really had invaded human experience in the distant past, the sceptic’s view is so restrictive that nothing could ever prove this to him. Meanwhile, McDowell relies on an overly simplistic stance on what is essentially historical probability, not fact. A more reasonable attitude would be that when we encounter the supernatural in ancient history, it is a legitimate warning bell that we may be reading something legendary, and so the standard for evidence naturally rises beyond what we would ordinarily demand. Good evidence for something as extreme as the resurrection of Jesus would be corroboration from multiple secular sources of the same time period. But we do not have this; we only have the Gospel accounts of the Christians.
One source for the historicity of Jesus, the Roman historian Tacitus, takes a sceptical stance to Christianity, calling it a “mischievous superstition.” McDowell never draws attention to this pertinent fact, only attempts to use Tacitus’s mention of Jesus as a proof for his life in general. This shows the one-sided bias in his approach.
The size of this book is a bit daunting, but in retrospect there’s a lot less in here than one might assume. Fifty percent or more of the volume is taken up by quotes. This makes it quite repetitive at times, as McDowell often cites lengthy sections by three or four Christian apologists, who are all covering the same ground. Worse still, some of the material is repeated in different chapters. There is also a massive reliance on rhetoric to back up evidence that is fairly flimsy, rather than a straightforward presentation of facts with the onus put on the reader to draw his own conclusions.
While the focus of the book is an attempt to establish the validity of the Bible as both a historical document and the “word of God,” there is a large part at the tail end tackling postmodernism and Eastern mysticism. These are included because the author sees them as contemporary threats to Christianity, but I think a far more important subject to tackle would have been the theory of evolution. It’s certainly far more influential in the West than Zen Buddhism! Evolution renders man’s “sinful nature” as null and void, because it sees all our behaviours as part of our evolutionary heritage, tracing our nastier base instincts to the reptilian brain. And if there is no sinful nature, then there is no need for redemption. So, evolution is one of the greatest threats to the survival of Christianity in the modern world. Yet the book contains nothing more than one passing mention of the topic in the introduction.
Amid the book’s rhetoric, there are occasional moments of very telling admission:
I took the evidence that I could gather and placed it on the scales. The scales tipped in favor of Christ as the Son of God, resurrected from the dead … Be careful. I am not saying that I proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus is the Son of God. What I did was to investigate the evidence and weigh the pros and cons. The results showed that Christ must be who He claimed to be … I was not looking for absolute truth but “historical probability.”
After a discussion on the Bible’s continuity, scope of circulation and translation, survival through time in the face of persecution and criticism, the quality of its teachings and prophecies, the scope of its influence on literature and civilisation, McDowell admits: “The evidence presented above does not prove that the Bible is the word of God. But …”
Here is a featured quote by Dr. A.C. Ivy, president of the American Physiological Society from 1939-49:
I cannot prove this belief as I can prove certain scientific facts in my library which one hundred years ago were almost as mysterious as the resurrection of Jesus Christ. On the basis of the historical evidence of existing biological knowledge, the scientist who is true to the philosophy of science can doubt the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, but he cannot deny it. Because to do so means that he can prove that it did not occur.”
In other words: “I can’t prove Jesus rose from the dead, but hey, you can’t disprove it either!” The fact that McDowell saw fit to quote something so logically fallacious demonstrates the weakness of his own thinking. Any rational thinker knows that one does not have to disprove something. The burden of proof lies upon the one making the astounding claim.
Norman Geisler is quoted, making the following observation on atheists – which he states without qualification or evidence:
Atheists who consistently try to live without God tend to commit suicide or go insane.
I advise anyone interested in Christianity to read this volume, in an open-minded but critical spirit, watching out for those weak arguments that sound good until properly examined. I remain confident that Christianity is a false religion, moreso after reading The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict.
When all is said and done, the choice of whether to believe in Christianity boils down to how much you want or need to believe and how easily you accept the supernatural in the absence of direct experience or concrete evidence.
When I am dead, If I am confronted by a God who asks me why I rejected his offer of salvation, my only reply can be, “Why did you make it so difficult to see you? Why did you put me in a position where I would have had to betray my own mind in order to accept it?”
For me, reading this book puts the final nail in the coffin of Christianity. Case closed.
Christopher Hitchens, recently deceased, was one of the most well known defenders of atheism, and probably needs no introduction. He was a lively and passionate speaker, able to put religion in its place with sharp wit and a startling economy of words. Never one to back down from a fight, he displayed a fierce disregard for any heckling from debaters or audiences. He never attacked religion from an overly intellectual philosophical point of view, but made his case against it on the grounds of a thorough knowledge of the horror that religion has been responsible for throughout mankind’s history. All of this made him, in my estimation, the most popular and entertaining atheist to listen to. Hard to compare him to Dawkins, since they each have a different area of expertise.
God Is Not Great is extremely useful as a catalogue of religious atrocity. Atheists will undoubtedly nod their approval of Hitchens’ presentation throughout the book. Only the most utterly brainwashed Christian or Muslim could failed to be embarrassed at the crimes done in the name of their respective religions. But the astute believer will respond, “You can’t judge a religion itself by the behaviour of its followers.” Is there merit to this objection? To an extent, yes. Hitchens appears to be making an ad hominem argument. I think Hitchens would argue that the sheer extent of the bad behaviour testifies to the destructive nature of the idea itself. These are not mere isolated occurances of evil, but appear to be stimulated by the ideas themselves. As the subtitle of the book says: “How religion poisons everything.”
This is true, but but the key question, which Hitchens does not really tackle is this: is the poison really within religion itself, or is it within people? Hitchens’s stance reminds me of the way that people have tried to condemn violent films and videogames as stimulating violent behaviour, when the truth is that the aggressive tendencies already exist within us, which is why we enjoy those kinds of entertainments. Same with pornography. Porn is bad, it is argued, becuase it stimulates sexual thoughts. No. Sexual thoughts exists, as comedian Bill Hicks put it, because of “having a dick.” Hence we have porn. Likewise, Hitchens argues, religion is bad because it turns people bad. On the contrary, the badness and the stupidity are a part of the human makeup. Religion is merely the tool that is used to express that badness and stupidity. The real accusation must be levelled at the selfish ambitions of those who reign at the top of all religious power structures. And the blame also lies at the stupidity of the common man for failing to see when he is being conned. I would put it like this: “People are stupid, therefore religion succeeds,” rather than “Religion poisons everything.”
Hitchens insists on dropping the capital “G” from the word God throughout the book, which is disappointing to me. I’m no fan of religion, but there is philosophical merit to the idea of God, whether understood deistically or pantheistically. There is nothing poisonous about metaphysics. My personal favourite term for the creative agent of the universe is the Infinite, and I always spell it with a capital “I”, purely in reference to its metaphysical nature. And I do not think of the Infinite as a transcendental entity, like the monotheistic religions.
The most disappointing aspect of the book was the slightly hypocritical note on which it closes. After earlier praising pluralism and free speech, Hitchens finishes by saying that we need a new Enlightenment and religion must be excluded from all discussion. How tyrannical of him to decide that for us all. Organised religion might one day die of its own accord, but I doubt that will bring an end to organised stupidity and intolerance. Those unfortunate human traits will simply find a new means of expression.
Hitchens’ critique of religion is, for the most part, valid. It just doesn’t quite reach the heart of the matter. God Is Not Great is a very useful book. An important catalogue of the misuse of religion throughout history.
Michael W. Ford calls himself a “Luciferian.” What this means, and how it differs from “Satanist,” is not easy to nail down. Equally difficult to answer definitively is the question: “What is Luciferianism?” Briefly, I think it is fair to say that a Luciferian is someone who finds greater relevance in the meaning of Lucifer (light-bearer) than Satan (adversary). There is certainly no evidence of a belief system of any significant scale called “Luciferianism” (despite what conspiracy theorists would assert). Furthermore, Ford’s own “Luciferian Magickal Order,” the Order of Phosphorous, is not the only contender; there is also the Ordo Luciferis, Ordo Luciferi, Temple of the Dark Sun, Neo-Luciferian Church.
The title of the book under review is an inversion (of sorts) of the Hebrew name of God in the Old Testament, rendered either as JHVH or YHWH. Y and J are the same in Hebrew, as are V and W. The language contains no vowels, so there is often some guessing required as to the correct pronunciation of words; hence we have Jehovah and Yahweh. Written backwards we get HVHJ. Where Ford comes up with HVHI is not explained, nor is any clue given as to how to pronounce this “name.”
Liber HVHI is a modern grimoire, drawing upon the myths of various past cultures, with a particular emphasis on Ahriman of Zoroastrianism. Also central to the book is the Qlippoth, a variation of the Tree of Life glyph from the Hebrew Cabala. Much of the historial material was so unfamiliar to me, and communicated with such brevity, that it was impossible to digest coherently. I also failed to grasp the reason for the importance Ford’s approach to magic. I understand myths as approximations to truth, which is why myths are always evolving over time, or outliving their usefulness. Ford’s insistence on the use of ancient myth strikes me as backward. It’s like learning astronomy, but refusing to let go of Ptolemy’s geocentric universe. In reading Liber HVHI, I was reminded of Anton LaVey’s opening statement in the preface to The Satanic Bible:
This book was written because, with very few exceptions, every tract and paper, every “secret” grimoire, all the “great works” on the subject of magic, are nothing more than sanctimonious fraud – guilt-ridden ramblings and esoteric gibberish by chroniclers of magical lore unable or unwilling to present an objective view on the subject.
And yet occasionally Liber HVHI struck a note of brilliance, as Ford communicated a rare insight, one hard to grasp by those unfamiliar to the Left-Hand Path. These flashes are what kept me reading, but they were few and far between. The material of worth in this volume would have filled a pamphlet. The book makes occasional references to a previous work of Ford’s, Luciferian Witchcraft. Perhaps I would have gained a little more out of Liber HVHI if I had started with the other one, but somehow I doubt it. There is a clarity to modern occult writers like Anton LaVey and Michael Aquino that is sadly lacking here.