Archive for the I don’t believe Category

What I Don’t Believe: The End of the World (3/3)

Posted in I don't believe on December 17, 2012 by Patrick

I suppose this one was obvious, but it was the original reason I wanted to write the series in the first place.  As you probably know, on the winter solstice this year — just a week away! — the world will . . . not end.  The Mayan calendar will . . . not end.  And the Maya . . . didn’t predict anything particular about the date, other than that it is the end of a b’ak’tun, a long cycle of about 400 years.  We’re currently in the 13th b’ak’tun, until Friday, when we will begin the 14th b’ak’tun.

This will not end the world any more than the beginning of January will end the world, or next Monday will.  It’s just the flipping over of a cycle of time.

So why do people want to believe that it will herald the end?  They did the same thing in 2000, as well as 1987, as well as 1844.

In fact, that last date is worthwhile to examine closer.  According to some complex reading of the Bible, William Miller predicted the end of the world on October 22, 1844.  As you probably remember from your high school history classes, the world didn’t end in 1844, but continued on a few additional years.  However, so persuasive was Miller that he convinced quite a lot of people to sell all their possessions and await the return of Christ.  Of course, since he didn’t show up, they were disappointed, and in a delightful bit of historical whimsy, this event is called The Great Disappointment.

They were disappointed.  They were disappointed, that the earth didn’t end.  They were disappointed that they and everyone they loved didn’t die.  Why is that?  Well, of course, they believed that they wouldn’t die — just all those nasty unbelievers would.  They’d live forever.  But I think the disappointment has its root even deeper.

I think the root of the disappointment, and the root of this eschatological urge in general, lies in the structure of narrative.  We want to believe that our stories are real, that they matter, and stories — at least, most stories in the west — have beginnings, middles, and ends.  The story’s not done until we see the end, and so they are disappointed that there’s another chapter after this cliff hanger.

Will the world end some day?  Oh, yes.  On some find morning an asteroid will smash into the earth, or the sun will burn out and expand into a red giant, or global warming will take off as a self-reinforcing feedback loop and turn us into Venus, or we’ll just kill off the ecosystem.  Something, someday, will destroy the earth.  The difference is, we have some control of these things.  We can mitigate the ecological and climatological damage that we’ve done.  We can watch for and attempt to deflect asteroids.  We can’t do much about the lifespan of the sun, but we can leave the planet.  We can do stuff, if we don’t think that the end is coming any second and it’s inevitable.  That’s the rub.  We have real work to do, and imagining the earth’s poles will shift on some day or another in the near future doesn’t help us do that work.  It is a lazy reader skipping to the end of the book.

I don’t believe in the end of the world because I think this novel is longer than that.  I think we still have many chapters to write, and I hope that we will not see the end of the world until we are so far beyond H. sapiens that we would not easily recognize ourselves.  I’m not a transhumanist, another particular flavor of eschatology — but I do think that we’ve got improvement and advancement ahead of us if we act wisely, but not if we abdicate our responsibility.


What I Don’t Believe: Secret Chiefs (2/3)

Posted in I don't believe on November 19, 2012 by Patrick

I don’t believe in secret chiefs.  I do believe, of course, that there are people wiser than I am, better at magic, and so on, just as there are those who are better looking, cook better, dance better, and so on.  So this rejection of the concept of “hidden masters” or “secret chiefs” isn’t a matter of ego.

For those not in the know, a secret chief is the “true” and invisible ruler of a magical order, who delivers his or her messages on to the more visible rulers by means of telepathy or other methods.

I do believe that spirits can teach us, even perhaps spirits who have once been human (although, really, what do you imagine makes them cleverer once they’re dead than they were when alive, other than mere perspective?).

But the results of the secret chiefs — the lodge wars, the posturing, the insisting that I have the true ear of the secret chiefs, no, no, I do, no, I do.  Bleh.  Bugger it all.  Anyone that imagines that this sort of nonsense is the height of magical work is doing it all wrong.  They’re the sort of folks who take on grand names, mutter mysteriously or glower at people at festivals, and turn every topic to that of the occult.  Dull people, in other words.

Again, as well, we find a bit of racism mixed in with occultism.  After all, so many of the secret chiefs come from Tibet, or India, or are Native American — which seems like a really good thing, doesn’t it?  I mean, it’s respectful of other cultures to honor their wisdom.  But that’s the problem: it’s not honoring their wisdom, because these “Tibetan” or whathaveyou secret chiefs are having the dubious wisdom of their humble acolytes put in their mouths.  When my secret and mysterious Native American spirit guide tells me some great teaching of his long lost people, what I’m probably really doing is projecting my own, quite western, quite white, probably quite imperialist views of what wisdom is onto this figurehead of “savage wisdom.”  It’s insulting, both to the western mystery traditions themselves which don’t need to be exoticized to be valuable, but more importantly it’s insulting to the people whose cultures we’ve reduced to “sources of secret wisdom,” rather than recognizing their complexity and richness as a culture.

Fortunately, this trend in occultism is dying out.  One rarely sees people claiming special knowledge from channeled hidden masters anymore, and the Native American spirit guide is, thank goodness, a thing of the past — in no small part, perhaps, thanks to those Native Americans who stopped putting up with the patronizing nonsense and spoke out against it.

And it’s doubly fortunate, because when we push our authority off onto secret chiefs, distant authority figures, and made up projections of our own prejudices, then we surrender our own authority.  And that’s not something a magician does lightly.  If the head of a magical order says, “I made up these rituals based on some stuff I read, and some of my own practices and experiences, as well as a few intuitions and insights I had,” I’d have more respect for that than claims of secret chiefs and mysterious ciphers.

What I Don’t Believe: Atlantis (1/3)

Posted in I don't believe on November 4, 2012 by Patrick

This is the first in a three post series on subjects in the occult that I don’t believe in.  Partially, I expect to stir some controversy, but really I want to talk about credulity and credibility, and also the pernicious nature of some of the teachings of the occult.

So: I don’t believe in Atlantis.  Or rather, I don’t believe that Atlantis, as Plato in Timaeus 24e-25a describes it:

For it is related in our records how once upon a time your State stayed the course of a mighty host, which, starting from a distant point in the Atlantic ocean, was insolently advancing to attack the whole of Europe, and Asia to boot. For the ocean there was at that time navigable; for in front of the mouth which you Greeks call, as you say, ‘the pillars of Heracles,’ there lay an island which was larger than Libya and Asia together; and it was possible for the travelers of that time to cross from it to the other islands, and from the islands to the whole of the continent over against them which encompasses that veritable ocean. For all that we have here, lying within the mouth of which we speak, is evidently a haven having a narrow entrance; but that yonder is a real ocean, and the land surrounding it may most rightly be called, in the fullest and truest sense, a continent. Now in this island of Atlantis there existed a confederation of kings, of great and marvelous power, which held sway over all the island, and over many other islands also and parts of the continent.

There is not any particularly good evidence that such a continent ever existed.

That’s not to say there aren’t lost civilizations, lost knowledge, and lost wisdom.  By no means!  One of the single most important books to a working theurgist — the Chaldean Oracles — is lost.  All we have are fragments, many of which are just a phrase or two quoted by someone else.  Moreover, there are whole writing systems, such as Rongorongo, that we cannot read, presumably with lost wisdom of their own.  But none of these come from Atlantis.

It’s not the assertion that Atlantis exists that I have a problem with.  It’s the racist and dismissive undertones that go along with it. One claim often made in occult circles about Atlantis is that every ancient culture got a “leg up” by settlers from the failing Atlantis. If the colonialist assumptions here don’t jump right out at you, well, you need to read Edward Said.  After all, if the poor benighted people of whatever country couldn’t get their stuff together until some external colonialists taught them how to do it, that justifies our own colonialism, doesn’t it?  At the same time, you got a nice dose of orientalism: the mystical and wise teachings of Other Culture Here all come from the same foundations.  They’re all the same, just as those Other People are all the same.

This is a bit like the old claim of the Perennial Philosophy, but it’s got extra scoops of ignorance, because rather than just saying “there are a lot of similarities between the teachings of diverse cultures” (something I do agree with), it says “and this similarity must be because of some sunken continent.”  Couldn’t it — wouldn’t it, more likely — be from the fact that human beings are very similar and are perceiving very similar truths?  If we all perceive an elephant, no one suggests that our ways of seeing and touching the elephant must have come from Atlantis.

Will we find sunken remains of cities?  Sure.  Underwater archeology is actually a thing.  Are they Atlantis?  Not in the sense of a wise and terrible continent sunk for its own arrogance and also the font of all the wisdom of the Orient and elsewhere.  Could there have been a historical Atlantis, perhaps not so large as Plato suggests?  Absolutely.  But it’s not the Occult Atlantis of the New Age movement.

And don’t even get me started on Lemuria.