The Gentleman Downstairs by R. Smith

smithr-gentlemandownstairsThe full title of the book is The Gentleman Downstairs and Other Satanic Parables and Fables. It contains 67 stories, each one short enough to fit on a single page, each one illustrating an aspect of the philosophy of the Chruch of Satan. The book is meticulously annotated with references to literature written by the church’s founder, Anton LaVey, as well as his successors, Blanche Barton and Peter H. Gilmore. The references are explicit right down to the page numbers. LaVey’s book The Satanic Witch (which I feel is one of his best) is mysteriously omitted from the canon. A little disappointing, as it’s the sort of book that would lend itself to colourful illustration, given that it’s about women’s powers of seduction.

As a free-thinker, I have a significant rapport with satanic philosophy, so I delved into R. Smith’s book with great interest. Some of the parables are set in an apartment building, where an enigmatic character known as the Gentleman Downstairs lives on the bottom floor. Other parables were set further afield in space and time. While some stories were forgettable, others really stuck in the mind. I was surprised and delighted to encounter a story about a man who cycles to work every day regardless of the weather. Almost no one does that, but it just so happens that I do! I never thought of it as pertinent to Satanism before.

On the coldest day the man bicycled to work. He arrived at work shivering with frost on his beard. But like every daily ride, he felt more alive than if he hadn’t taken the bicycle. Coworkers regarded him with incredulity. They didn’t understand the transformation the ride brought about in the man.

The Gentleman Downstairs has been designed with an aesthetic in keeping with LaVey’s The Satanic Bible, so that it will look right at home on the bookshelf beside it. While great care has been taken with the presentation, inside and out, my only quibble is that an exceptionally small font size was chosen for the text, to ensure that no story would take more than one page. A little hard on the eyes, but it’s is a small quibble.

Parables were Jesus’ way of teaching his disciples important lessons about life through allegory. It’s a wonder nobody has thought of doing the same for Satanism until now. And intertaining and insightful read that I’m sure I will return to in the future. To sample some of the parables, visit the offical website: www.satanicparables.com.

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The Missionary Position by Christopher Hitchens

Notorious atheist Christopher Hitchens has written this short volume, subtitled “Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice” as a critique of the enigmatic Catholic nun that everyone knows so well – or do they? My opinion of Mother Teresa, prior to reading this book, was stereotypically positive, informed only by the TV news. I don’t like Christianity, but regardless of one’s religion (or lack thereof), it is possible to live a life of selfless devotion to others. Few of us choose that path, but if anyone shines brightly in this regard, it’s got to be Mother Teresa, right?

Wrong. Hitchens shows how Mother Teresa’s fame began with a documentary made about her Calcutta orphanage – the director insisting that he had captured the first ever miracle on camera. This miracle was the strange quality of the light within the building, which the director believed could not be explained naturally. The media ran with this, giving birth to a legend. The cameraman, who attributed the “miracle” to the quality of the new Kodak film, had no impact.

Hitchens, with painstaking research, unearths records of people who have visited Mother Teresa’s “House for the Dying.” We find a woman who, instead of attempting to improve the lives of “the poorest of the poor”, is interested first and foremost in the advancement of a religious view that makes a virtue out of suffering. While millions of dollars in donations lie dormant in accounts, she insists on maintaining strictly ascetic living conditions, not only for the nuns of her order, but for all her patients. Dying men are not allowed a simple comfort like watching TV or receiving visitors. People languish in pain without freely available painkillers. There was a particularly horrific case of a fifteen-year-old whose life could have been saved if he had been taken to hospital to receive proper medical care, but this was not permitted. “They would all want it,” was the excuse.

Meanwhile Mother Teresa is immune to criticism from a media that fails to inquire deeply enough. Her actions are judged by her reputation, rather than her reputation being judged by her actions. Instead of being a compassionate person, she is motivated first and foremost by the advancement of her religious order.

It’s hard to argue against Hitchens’ dark depiction. From now on, when I think of the word “humanitarian,” it won’t be Mother Teresa’s face that comes to mind.

Why I Am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell

russellb-whyiamnotachristianThis volume brings together a collection of speeches and essays by the famous philosopher Bertrand Russell. They are all, directly or indirectly, about the topic of religion. In the titular essay, the author explains his reasons for being unconvinced by Christianity. In contrast to the typical view that Jesus was a good man but not the Messiah, Russell has no qualms about suggesting that he is not as good or as wise as we often make him out to be. He provides some compelling examples from the gospels, and makes an interesting comparison between the characters of Jesus, Socrates and Buddha, with Jesus seeming rather crude by comparison.

The lecture touches on the themes of what it means to be a Christian; the “first cause” argument for God’s existence; the natural law argument; the argument from design; moral arguments for deity; the remedying of injustice; the character of Jesus and defects in his teaching; how churches hinder progress; how religion uses fear. It’s a good lecture, uncompromising and informative. The only misstep, I felt, was Russell’s suggestion that Jesus may not have existed at all.

The main problem with Russell’s speech is that it doesn’t go deep enough. As an ex-Christian, I recognise that the primary mistake at the heart of religion is the erroneous notion that mankind is defective and in need of some kind of redemption. When you put in the time and effort to understand your own nature, and nature itself, then religion’s entire sales pitch evaporates. Essentially, my answer to the question “Why are you not a Christian?” is “Because I am not broken.” Religion is based upon a profound misdiagnosis of the human condition.

The titular speech is the high point of Russell’s book. The other chapters are variable in quality. The more interesting ones were those where Russell talks about sexuality; he was daringly forward-thinking for the time in which he spoke.

Overall, I have to report that I’m a little disappointed. It’s not that this is a bad book. Just that I was hoping to be blown away by it, given the author’s reputation as a philosopher. I found myself wincing at times at the manner in which Russell occasionally makes overly dramatic accusations which appear to be more emotional than rational. An interesting read, but not an essential addition to my library.

10% Happier by Dan Harris

harrisd-10happierI was especially attracted by the title of this volume because I’ve noticed that spiritual teachers have an unfortunate tendency to promise a lot more than they can actually deliver – Eckhart Tolle with his Zen-like persona being a prime example. I don’t believe in total freedom from suffering; that’s just not realistic. But “ten percent happier” is a phrase I can work with, because it suggests that ordinary human consciousness can be improved rather than transformed.

Dan Harris is a news anchor. Some years ago he took a panic attack in front of the camera. This, and a number of other factors, conspired to lead him to take an active interest in the subject of meditation. 10% Happier charts this journey. It contains fascinating interviews with Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra, Harris’s personal struggles with meditation, his time at a retreat. What makes this book unique is that it is told from the perspective of a genuinely interested sceptic. If you’ve read a few volumes on meditation and struggled to understand the practice, Harris’s book will be a welcome relief.

I noticed that the author appears to be a very extraverted person. This might be part of the reason why he struggled so much with meditation. He was accustomed to paying attention to the world of his senses and not to the internal landscape of the mind. Meditation was a way of redirecting that focus. You take away the outside world and you are forced to pay attention to the mind. This helps you to see your own motivations. In short, meditation can show you what an asshole you are.

If the book lacks something, it’s metaphysics. Meditation without metaphysics is a bit of a half-empty sandwich, for me personally. It serves as a form of self-therapy, but you never really tackle the issue of the “self” – coming to terms with the non-existence of an entity sitting between your eyes, while undersanding that consciousness is real. But that’s another story.

Harris also never fully questions his own lifestyle – the whole notion of climbing the ladder of success. He’s looking for a way to maintain his game, but the game itself might be part of the problem. But Dan Harris is who he is. And this book is the most down-to-earth and objective examination of meditation that I have read. For me, it’s one of the more important reads of recent years.

The Origin of Satan by Elaine Pagels

pagelse-originofsatanMy first inkling that there was something wrong with our typical ideas about Satan came as a result of reading the Bible in its entirely. Until one does that, one is usually blind to the fact that Satan is hardly in the Old Testament at all. And when he is mentioned (primarily in the Book fof Job), he doesn’t seem to be the same guy that Christians are familiar with. He’s not the head of a kingdom of fallen angels in opposition to God. Instead, he’s keeping company with the regular angels. And he doesn’t step out of line. When God gives him instructions, he carries them out to the letter. The only “satanic” thing about him is the fact that he has a dirty job; he’s a sort of prosecutor. When God boasts about how much Job loves him, Satan is inclined to be sceptical, claiming that Job is only playing nice because God plays nice. “Take away the benefits and Job will curse you,” says Satan. And so the trials of Job begin.

The Christian depiction of Satan as the powerful “anti-God” is not shared by mainstream Judaism and never was. It was the exclusive view of a few minor sects, such as the Essenes and the one that would blossom into what we now call Christianity. Pagels chief concern is to examine the effects of this rebranding of Satan. The subtitle of the book is “How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans and Heretics.” The Satan of Christianity represents all that is evil. So the moral dramas of our lives now take on a cosmic significance, as battles between God and Satan. The dangerous side of this is when we come to view the wider arena of the world in the same terms. When we view our enemies as allied with Satan and ourselves as allied with God, we are provided with immediate justification for killing others in the name of God. And that is, of course, the tragedy what has happened in history.

It could have been a much shorter work, except the author painstakingly sets the historical scene – assuming that the reader knows little to nothing of the Biblical period. If the reader is expecting a book all about Satan, he may be disappointed. It’s more of a general history book with a particular emphasis. My only disappointment was that I had been hoping Pagels would shed more light on the influence of Zoroastrianism upon Judaism, as it looks very much as if the modern depiction of Satan originated with the Zoroastrian belief in the struggle between Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu.

This book is a non-sensationalist scholarly work that provides a massive challege to Christian theology.

Waking Up by Sam Harris

harriss-wakingupA couple of years ago I was listening to a debate by Sam Harris, when he made a remark about consciousness being the one thing that you absolutely cannot declare is an illusion, because consciousness is the very ground from which you come to know everything else. This was not the sort of thing you hear from a typical atheist; atheists tend to be materialists who do their best to ignore the profound mystery of consciousness.

I was similarly delighted to learn about the publication of this book, subtitled “A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.” Sounds right up my street. Harris has been a long-term meditator. He has spent time studying under eastern gurus in the past, and has also dabbled in psychoactive drugs. The book is part memoir, part science (neuroscience in particular), and part how-to manual on meditation and its benefits. The one thing it lacks (by Harris’s own admission) is metaphysical speculation. This is unfortunate, because it means that the kind of “spirituality” Harris refers to is rather weak, little more than the use of altered states of consciousness to improve psychological wellbeing. Harris, like most atheists, subscribes to materialism. Unfortunately, he doesn’t acknowledge that materialism is also metaphysical speculation. A little inductive thinking is more than called for when attempting to discern whether the prime reality consists of matter or mind (or indeed something else).

The book will no doubt prove to be divisive among his main audience (atheists), but it will hopefully get many of them thinking seriously about consciousness. As a result of our Christian heritage, we’re all mind-body dualists, but few of us realise this. Instead, we blindly think of ourselves as literal psyches inhabiting bodies. While consciousness is not an illusion, the view of consciousness as an entity sitting between the eyes most definitely is. This is difficult conditioning to overcome, and many are not even aware of it as an issue.

Harris is mostly clear and accurate in his writing, but I did find myself confused in places by the language he chose to employ. When he talks about “the illusion of the self,” it almost seemed like he was denying the reality of consciousness itself. Then I learned to interpret his use of the word “self” to mean “self as a distinct mind/soul” rather than “self in the abstract” (if that makes any sense).

The book tackles some related side-issues, such as the moral failures of guru figures, why Buddhism is better than monotheistic religions, the value and danger of psychedelics, the validity of near-death experiences. All interesting material. There are better books on meditation and spirituality, such as the work of Alan Watts. Harris, I feel, falls for the trap of using meditation as a technique to escape from ordinary consciousness into a state of blissful wellbeing. This is based on the faulty understanding that ordinary states of consciousness are somehow broken. And this is a close cousin to the religious notion that mankind must be repaired from a metaphysical fall from grace. This is a connection that Harris doesn’t see. Without relying on meditation at all, I’ve come to a much more profound realisation that consciousness, in its natural state, is not broken in any way. And so, I don’t experience any of the striving that Harris’s book is preoccupied with.

Nevertheless, Waking Up is a most welcome addition to a growing body of literature on esoteric spirituality, not because it’s especially brilliant, but because of who Harris is and who he has the power to influence.

There Is No God and He Is Always With You by Brad Warner

warnerb-thereisnogodEastern philosophy is sometimes erroneously criticised as denying the law of non-contradiction. You can understand why, given the seemingly irrational title of this book. But no contradiction is intended. Language is an imprecise thing. A word is a pointer to something; it is not the thing itself. And when the thing you are pointing to is something that transcends all space-time categories, then you’re in especially deep trouble when you attempt to define it. Such is the problem with the word “God.”

Buddhism has sometimes been called a religion without God. That’s only true if by God you mean deity. When Warner talks about his relatively mild childhood exposure to Christianity, his idea of God was of “a blinding light with a personality.” This struck me as a very memorable image, because there are many Christians who claim to have gotten past the comicbook image of God as a bearded grandfather in the clouds, but it strikes me that any attempt to personify the Transcendent inevitably leads to just the false image that Warner describes. When you make God a person, as all monotheistic religions do, you miss the point entirely.

Brad attempts to make the case that “God” is a useful and necessary word for Buddhists in the West to employ. It’s a way of using our existing religious heritage to our advantage. I can see the value of this, because the denial of the existence of God in the West tends to lead to a form of atheism that is entirely materialistic in nature. In fact, I wasted almost two decades of my life lumbered with this faulty assumption. Such “metaphysical naturalism” is emphatically not the Buddhist position. Buddhism recognises a transcendent reality behind nature, but it is one that defies all categorisation, as mind, matter, or anything else. So, one way to become aware of this third side is to use the word God as a useful pointer to the Ground of Being.

So the first part of Warner’s title, “There Is No God,” really means “There is no divine humanlike persona looking down upon the Universe.” The second part, “And He Is Always With You,” can be thought of as an abstract pointer to the reality of the Mystery of Mysteries that is holding the manifest Universe together. I’m in two minds about whether I like the title. In a sense, I think the words “with you” obscure the more fundamental truth of the absolute non-separation of all things, including your own identity from the whole.

But the content of the book is exemplary. Many of the chapters involve autobiographical material from Warner’s book tours, where he comments on local religious traditions in various parts of the world. I was delighted to see a chapter devoted to the Protestant and Catholic disputes of my own homeland, Northern Ireland. One of my favourite chapters was called “Enlightenment Porn.” You know how pornography teases you with all the magnificant superheated sex that you’re never going to have? Well, enlightenment porn is what the typical spiritual guru projects at you; he wants you to believe that his eternally unperturbed consciousness is something that you can have, too (for a fee). But it’s a lie, of course.

I have now read all of Brad Warner’s books (well, I’m still looking out for Gill Women of the Prehistoric Planet – I kid you not!). He continues to be a writer that is accessible to the average IQ, intellectually profound, and deeply honest. Personally, I think of him as the spiritual successor to Alan Watts.