Since I first started to study Crowley seriously around 1976, I have always felt instinctively that Thelema is primarily a religion. When I say “primarily” I mean that although some aspects of it are artistic, others magical, some philosophical, the raison d’etre of Thelema is essentially religious.
I get a couple of emails each week from visitors telling me that I’m wrong; that Thelema “is not” a religion – indeed, that Thelema makes all religions defunct.
I’m pleased to say that I’ve now located a brief article by Bill Heidrick – one of the most knowledgeable and courteous Thelemites you’re likely to find – that provides what is perhaps a definitive answer… From Thelema Lodge Calendar (November 1992) by Bill Heidrick… (Reproduced with kind permission – all rights reserved)
Does the following citation show that Crowley held Thelema not be a Religion?
Call it a new religion, then, if it so please your Gracious Majesty; but I confess that I fail to see what you will have gained by so doing, and I feel bound to add that you might easily cause a great deal of misunderstanding, and work a rather stupid kind of mischief.
The word does not occur in The Book of the Law.
— Magick Without Tears, Letter #31
I see two things to our point in this citation:
1) Crowley’s correspondent for the letters in Magick Without Tears, is allowed by Crowley to call it (Thelema) a new religion, but he fails to see the advantage for her doing so.
2) The word “religion” does not occur in The Book of the Law.
Taking the simpler first, it is true that the word “religion” does not occur in Liber AL, but that doesn’t stop Crowley from using it in his commentaries on Liber AL in several instances, as I will show below. On the first point: calling Thelema a “new religion” is not the same thing as simply calling it a “religion”. A question thrown against the merits of calling a thing “new” does not stick of necessity to the thing apart from newness.
In the context of the greater part of this MWT letter Crowley discusses the definition of “religion”, issuing a trial definition of: “A religion then, is a more or less coherent and consistent set of beliefs, with precepts and prohibitions therefrom deducible.” Crowley goes on to say that he often (not always) uses the word “religion” in the sense of Frazer in opposition to “science” or “Magic.” Crowley then develops for a bit the idea of influenceable deities or similar beasties in contrast to his ideas of “Laws of Nature” both for Science and Magick. He concludes this preamble with the paragraph just before our citation:
To sum up, our system is a religion just so far as a religion means an enthusiastic putting-together of a series of doctrines, no one of which must in any way clash with Science or Magick.
I fail to see that this can in any way be held to be a denial of the qualifier “religion” to “Thelema”.
Now, this is not enough to decide what Crowley thought of the matter one way or another. More of a body and weight of evidence is necessary. Even in the face of a direct denial of the qualifier “religion” to “Thelema”, which denial is not here, the weight of other references by Crowley would have to be taken into account.
Following are selected citations from Crowley’s Opus on the point. It will be seen that Crowley uses different implied definitions of “religion” at different times, but the body of the text leads to a common conclusion that Crowley freely considered Thelema to be a religion in general; AA and O.T.O. to be particular religions in practice. Here are a few of Crowley’s expressed views, among very many to the point:
COMMENTARIES TO LIBER AL – major points:
To AL I,63:
I wish here to emphasise that the Law of Thelema definitely enjoins us, as a necessary act of religion, to “drink sweet wines and wines that foam”. Any free man or woman who resides in any community where this is verboten has a choice between two duties: insurrection and emigration.
To AL III,19:
But that apart, the proof of any discarnate intelligence, even of the lowest order, has never before been established. And lack of that proof is the flaw in all the religions of the past; man could not be certain of the existence of “God”, because though he knew many powers independent of muscle, he knew of no consciousness independent of nerve.
To AL III,22:
Our religion therefore, for the People, is the Cult of the Sun, who is our particular star of the Body of Nuit, from whom, in the strictest scientific sense, come this earth, a chilled spark of Him, and all our Light and Life.
COMMENTARIES TO LIBER AL – minor points:
To AL I,52:
Therefore, the Love that is Law is no less Love in the petty personal sense; for Love that makes two One is the engine whereby even the final Two, Self and Not-Self, may become One, in the mystic marriage of the Bride, the Soul, with Him appointed from eternity to espouse her; yea, even the Most High, God All-in-All, the Truth.
Therefore we hold Love holy, our heart’s religion, our mind’s science.
To AL I,56:
All religions have some truth.
We possess all intellectual truth, and some, not all, mystic truth.
To AL I,63:
All those acts which excite the divine in man are proper to the Rite of Invocation.
Religion, as understood by the vile Puritan, is the very opposite of all this. He – it – seems to wish to kill his – its – soul by forbidding every expression of it, and every practice which might awaken it to expression. To hell with this Verbotenism!
It is possible to base a religion, not on theory and results, but on practice and methods.
Chapter 49 of Confessions deals with “The Claim of ‘The Book of the Law’ in Respect of Religion”.
The history of mankind teems with religious teachers. These may be divided into three classes.
1. Such men as Moses and Mohammed state simply that they have received a direct communication from God. They buttress their authority by divers methods, chiefly threats and promises guaranteed by thaumaturgy; they resent the criticism of reason.
2. Such men as Blake and Boehme claimed to have entered into direct communication with discarnate intelligence which may be considered as personal, creative, omnipotent, unique, identical with themselves or otherwise. Its authority depends on “the interior certainty” of the seer.
3. Such teachers as Lao-Tzu, the Buddha and the highest Gnana-yogis announce that they have attained to superior wisdom, understanding, knowledge and power, but make no pretence of imposing their views on mankind. They remain essentially sceptics. They base their precepts on their own personal experience, saying, in effect, that they have found that the performance of certain acts and the abstention from others created conditions favourable to the attainment of the state which has emancipated them. The wiser they are, the less dogmatic. Such men indeed formulate their transcendental conception of the cosmos more or less clearly; they may explain evil as illusion, etc., but the heart of their theory is that the problem of sorrow has been wrongly stated, owing to the superficial or incomplete data presented by normal human experience through the senses, and that it is possible for men, by virtue of some special training (from Asana to Ceremonial Magick), to develop in themselves a faculty superior to reason and immune from intellectual criticism, by the exercise of which the original problem of suffering is satisfactorily solved.
“The Book of the Law” claims to comply with the conditions necessary to satisfy all three types of inquirer.
Firstly, it claims to be a document not only verbally, but literally inspired. “Change not as much as the style of a letter; for behold! thou, o prophet, shalt not behold all these mysteries hidden therein. … This book shall be translated into all tongues: but always with the original in the writing of the Beast; for in the chance shape of the letters and their position to one another: in these are mysteries that no Beast shall divine. Let him not seek to try: but one cometh after him, whence I say not, who shall discover the Key of it all.”
The author claims to be a messenger of the Lord of the Universe and therefore to speak with absolute authority.
Secondly, it claims to be the statement of transcendental truth, and to have overcome the difficulty of expressing such truth in human language by what really amounts to the invention of a new method of communicating thought, not merely a new language, but a new type of language; a literal and numerical cipher involving the Greek and Hebrew Cabbalas, the highest mathematics etc. It also claims to be the utterance of an illuminated mind co-extensive with the ultimate ideas of which the universe is composed.
Thirdly, it claims to offer a method by which men may arrive independently at the direct consciousness of the truth of the contents of the Book; enter into communication directly on their own initiative and responsibility with the type of intelligence which informs it, and solve all their personal religious problems.
Generally, “The Book of the Law” claims to answer all possible religious problems. One is struck by the fact that so many of them are stated and settled separately in so short a space.
The existence of true religion presupposes that of some discarnate intelligence, whether we call him God or anything else. And this is exactly what no religion had ever proved scientifically. And this is what “The Book of the Law” does prove by internal evidence, altogether independent of any statement of mine.
Continuing on the issue of Freemasonry as concealed Religion:
There is, therefore, no reason for refraining from the plain statement that, to anyone who understands the rudiments of symbolism, the Master’s degree is identical with the Mass. This is in fact the real reason for papal anathema; for freemasonry asserts that every man is himself the living, slain and re-arisen Christ in his own person.
It is true that not one mason in ten thousand in England is aware of this fact; but he has only to remember his “raising” to realize the fundamental truth of the statement.
More to the point of Thelema:
I claim for my system that it satisfies all possible requirements of true freemasonry. It offers a rational basis for universal brotherhood and for universal religion.
FROM THE CONSTITUTION OF THE ORDER OF THELEMITES (1920s)
12. The Order of Thelemites is categorically opposed to:
(a) All superstitious religions, as obstacles to the establishment of scientific religion; …
FROM BOOK 4:
What is the curse upon religion that its tenets must always be associated with every kind of extravagance and falsehood?
There is one exception; it is the AA, whose members are extremely careful to make no statement at all that cannot be verified in the usual manner; or where this is not easy, at least avoid anything like a dogmatic statement.
FROM THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. BERNARD SHAW:
… I agree with practically every word reported of the Yogi Jesus, and nearly every word of the Essene. True, I reject Salvationism, and the Jewish element of prophecies fulfilled, and the praise of the Law of Moses; but trust humbly that any deficiency in these respects may be more than made up by superfluity in another. For not only do I hold the cult of John Barleycorn to be the only true religion, but have established his worship anew; in the last three years branches of my organisation have sprung up all over the world to celebrate the ancient rite. So mote it be.
FROM THE EQUINOX, VOL.I, No.1, p. 146:
In the West religion alone has never issued from chaos; and the hour, late though it be, has struck when without fear or trembling adepts have arisen to do for Faith what Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton did for what is vulgarly known as “Science.”
FROM MAGICK IN THEORY AND PRACTICE, Ch.4:
Professor William James, in his “Varieties of Religious Experience,” has well classified religion as the “once-born” and the “twice-born”; but the religion now proclaimed in Liber Legis harmonizes these by transcending them.
No more room here, but many more citations are available.
If Crowley felt that “Religion” did not always adequately apply to Liber AL and Thelema, it appears to me from the above that the only reason for such hesitancy would be the abuse and limitation of the word “religion” by others. He clearly thought that Thelema was a perfection of “Religion” or, at least, more of the same gone farther in the same direction.
Since the question of Thelema as religion can also be addressed from witnesses contemporary to Crowley, I quote a letter from Frieda Harris during Crowley’s last years of life. This letter is mostly filled with Frieda going on about Crowley’s asinine behavior, but she does state on page 2: “I have no quarrel with him. I don’t much care if he wants the copyright (to the Thoth Tarot) but I do care if it gets into the hands of the religious body he mis-conducts in California, & that is what he imagines is his duty to do. They are a collection of exotic idiots…” That is of course Agape Lodge. Speaking as a late-comer to the collection aforesaid, I do submit that Crowley thought of OTO as a religion, and so did at least one of his Executors.
— TSG (Bill Heidrick)