Monday, April 30, 2007

No More Fortune-Telling in Philadelphia

Based on a 30-year-old state law that was recently brought to their attention by police, city officials recently closed down all professional psychics, tarot readers, and astrologers in Philadelphia.

Fortune-telling no longer in the cards in Philly

The law defines fortune-telling in such a vague manner that it could apply to just about anything, from card-reading to motivational speaking. Check out the text:

§ 7104. Fortune telling.

(a) Offense defined.--A person is guilty of a misdemeanor of the third degree if he pretends for gain or lucre, to tell fortunes or predict future events, by cards, tokens, the inspection of the head or hands of any person, or by the age of anyone, or by consulting the movements of the heavenly bodies, or in any other manner, or for gain or lucre, pretends to effect any purpose by spells, charms, necromancy, or incantation, or advises the taking or administering of what are commonly called love powders or potions, or prepares the same to be taken or administered, or publishes by card, circular, sign, newspaper or other means that he can predict future events, or for gain or lucre, pretends to enable anyone to get or to recover stolen property, or to tell where lost property is, or to stop bad luck, or to give good luck, or to put bad luck on a person or animal, or to stop or injure the business or health of a person or shorten his life, or to give success in business, enterprise, speculation, and games of chance, or to win the affection of a person, or to make one person marry another, or to induce a person to make or alter a will, or to tell where money or other property is hidden, or to tell where to dig for treasure, or to make a person to dispose of property in favor of another.

Enforcement of the law hinges on the definition of "pretends." Since I really believe in my magical abilities does that mean I wouldn't fall under this law? I certainly am not "pretending" when I cast a spell. Will the courts have to decide if all the "Green Gospel" preachers in the state really have faith in what they are saying so that they can escape prosecution? Anybody trolling for donations because God wants them to have a secluded retreat in the Bahamas had better watch out.

Honestly, I think it is pretty clear that the law was intended to apply to con artists who exploit the gullible by claiming spiritual powers of one sort or another. The problem is that it was written broadly to try and cover every possible method that such a person could exploit but in fact winds up including all sorts of things that the authors likely never considered. I have a pretty low opinion of phony spiritual workers and it still seems to me that this is a stupid law. Con artists should be covered under existing fraud statutes, whether or not they claim to be psychic.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

"Neurotheology" Enters Popular Culture

Over the weekend I attended a series of Vajrayana Buddhist teachings. Afterwards, I offered the comment that Vajrayana seems to combine with the spiritual culture in which it arises. My sample size consisted of the only two major schools of Vajrayana left in the world - Tibetan Buddhism, in which Vajrayana incorporated elements from the native Bon religion, and Japanese Shingon Buddhism, which incorporated elements of Shinto.

In the Western world it appears such a process is going on right now as Vajrayana becomes a more popular spiritual path. Mainstream Christianity positions itself as incompatible with Buddhism due to the univalent theology of montheism, so Vajrayana is combining with another belief system common in the industrialized world - scientism, the belief that the world can be comprehended through the application of the scientific method. The Dalai Lama even appeared at a recent neuroscience conference and discussed meditation with the assembled researchers.

This synthesis has a new, catchy name: "Neurotheology." Two articles from Slate discuss the rise of this worldview and how it applies a scientific understanding of the brain to spiritual states of consciousness.

God is in the Dendrites: Can "neurotheology" bridge the gap between religion and science?

Spirit Tech: How to wire your brain for religious ecstasy.

This all sure sounds like "the method of science, the aim of religion" to me! Clearly Aleister Crowley was ahead of his time, but then he always knew that he was.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

No More Limbo

After much investigation and discussion since the inauguration of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI, the realm of Limbo has been eliminated from Roman Catholic theology. In effect, the Church has "realized its emptiness." Slate has a good article explaining the final ruling which was announced last Friday:

The End of Limbo

Actually, the ruling is not all that surprising given the current Pope. In the mid-1980's Cardinal Ratzinger researched the concept at the behest of John Paul II and concluded that there was no real doctrinal evidence for the otherworldly realm into which people who were basically good but unbaptized would arrive upon their deaths.

I was raised ELCA Lutheran and attended an Episcopal high school, so the idea of a "realm of Limbo" has always struck me as a little silly. It is based on two pillars of Catholic theology - Augustine's concept of original sin and Jesus' statement that baptism was necessary for salvation. Augustine's theology is tenuous at best, and reading the Bible as literally as you would have to in order to treat the second point as an absolute you find that the consequence of Adam and Eve's original sin was mortality. This consequence was indeed passed down to their progeny, but it is not "wiped away" by baptism - after all, baptized Catholics still get old and die, right?

In fact, both the Genesis narrative and the words of Christ lend themselves to a more metaphoric reading. The legalism that necessitated the creation of Limbo is actually a rather narrow view of salvation, and it's good to see the Catholic Church putting forth this more reasonable ruling. Looking at his comments from the 1980's my guess is that Joseph Ratzinger has wanted to issue such a ruling for a long time and now that he's Pope he finally has the requisite doctrinal authority.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Festival Seeks Goatman

Maryland's Faerie Festival is looking for an actor to portray the dreaded Goatman, a local legend said to be the result of unnatural agricultural research gone bad. The chosen applicant must be "willing to run around with horns on his head."

Wanted: Maryland-Area Goatman to Hang Out with Faeries

Lalitha and I traveled to Maryland two summers ago and shot some footage for a tongue-in-cheek documentary on Goatman. Some of you may have even seen it at one of our private screenings. It's too bad we don't live in the area - some footage of whatever actor they find to play the part would be amusing.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Carlos Castaneda: Dark Sorcerer?

Salon has an interesting and disturbing piece on Carlos Castaneda, the late author of the bestselling "Teachings of Don Juan" series.

The Dark Legacy of Carlos Castaneda

If this piece is indeed accurate and not just the work of a disgruntled follower, it raises an interesting question. Does fame and fortune push otherwise sane spiritual folks over the edge, or was he a complete fraud from the beginning? Or was he perhaps a casualty of his own spiritual system?

It is certainly true that "The Teachings of Don Juan" could not reasonably be considered non-fiction. Despite being a graduate student in anthropology, Castaneda gets a number of obvious things wrong that any real anthropologist would have caught. For example, Don Juan is supposed to be a Yaqui Indian who had extensive knowledge of the spiritual applications of peyote when in fact the Yaqui Indians do not use peyote at all in their religious ceremonies. As the article notes, much of this was uncovered in the 1970's.

The books' status as serious anthropology went almost unchallenged for five years. Skepticism increased in 1972 after Joyce Carol Oates, in a letter to the New York Times, expressed bewilderment that a reviewer had accepted Castaneda's books as nonfiction. The next year, Time published a cover story revealing that Castaneda had lied extensively about his past. Over the next decade, several researchers, most prominently Richard de Mille, son of the legendary director, worked tirelessly to demonstrate that Castaneda's work was a hoax.

Since significant portions Castaneda's books seem to have been fraudulent from the start, this does give credence to the idea that he might have always been a phony. Despite this, his books continue to sell. Aleister Crowley comments in Liber DCXXXIII De Thaumaturgia that:

Since it is part of the Magick of every one to cause both Nature and man to conform to the Will, man may lawfully be influenced by the performance of miracles. But true miracles should not be used for this purpose; for it is to profane the nature of the miracle, and to cast pearls before swine; further, man is so built that he will credit false miracles, and regard true miracles as false. {emphasis mine} It is also useful at times for the magician to prove to them that he is an imposter; therefore, he can easily expose his false miracles, whereas this must not be done where they are true; for to deny true miracles is to injure the power to perform them.

I usually consider this an overly cynical point of view, in that I have my doubts that people are automatically willing to accept false miracles over true ones. Still, it cannot be denied even in this day and age that it's the fakers who have the best marketing departments, sell the most books, and recruit the most followers. As a result, they make a lot more money.

Stanley Milgram did a very famous experiment on obedience to authority. He found that in the context of an experiment in which the authority was a scientist, most people would continue taking direction even if they believed that what they were doing was hurting someone else. Clearly, something similar happens with cult leaders. Can you imagine yourself believing this, as reported by a former follower?

She recounts how she soon found herself in bed with Castaneda. He told her he hadn't had sex for 20 years. When Wallace later worried she might have gotten pregnant (they'd used no birth control), Castaneda leapt from the bed, shouting, "Me make you pregnant? Impossible! The nagual's sperm isn't human ... Don't let any of the nagual's sperm out, nena. It will burn away your humanness." He didn't mention the vasectomy he'd had years before.

Needless to say, the article adds that Castaneda was actually having sex with a number of his female followers throughout this period, and as far as I know the special properties of "nagual sperm" are not recounted in any of his works.

I've commented before that I think the problem with some of us genuine occultists is that we think the truth will automatically win out over outright nonsense, whereas those who peddle nonsense understand that since their ideas have no value, the only way to sell them is to weave enough of a tapestry of lies that most people will find them convincing. If we want the truth to be able to compete in the marketplace of ideas, we have to promote it as though it were a bunch of hooey - and then maybe folks will buy it and unwittingly enlighten themselves.

One thing is certain - if magick is defined as the science and art of causing change in conformity with will, Castaneda was certainly a success. He got what he wanted throughout his life - money, sex, adoration, book sales... and the list goes on. His success brings to mind Chapter 27 of Aleister Crowley's Book of Lies:


A Sorcerer by the power of his magick had subdued
all things to himself.
Would he travel? He could fly through space more
swiftly than the stars.
Would he eat, drink, and take his pleasure? there
was none that did not instantly obey his bidding.
In the whole system of ten million times ten million
spheres upon the two and twenty million planes he
had his desire.
And with all this he was but himself.

I'm not one to buy into the idea that there is anything wrong with using magick for mundane ends, but there also needs to be some focus on spiritual development as well or bad things tend to happen. Castaneda's followers sound like a classic destructive cult, and the article comments that some insiders believe that his closest followers killed themselves shortly after his death. If this is true, a little real enlightenment interspersed with the teachings might have gone a long way and saved some lives.

Maybe in the end what's really dangerous is someone who starts out as a fraud but eventually starts to buy their own bullshit.