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This essay was originally written back in the year 2000. Naturally my views have changed a bit since then. I'm including it here on the web site for "archival" purposes, since it is, in a way, the piece that initiated my career as a writer. For it turned out to be so provocative that I felt compelled to explain myself better, and think a little deeper, and in the process I discovered what I really believed. The version here is the version which appeared as a chapter of my first book, "Dangerous Religion". Incidently, this essay was also originally published on Witchvox.com, but the staff of that web site censored parts of it, and eventually took it off their site. Curious, that! (B.C.M., June 2010).
Distinguishing Religion from a Role Play Game
Brendan Myers, 2000 / 2004.
A “game” is any activity that challenges participants to achieve a certain goal within a certain set of rules. It need not be an activity undertaken purely for leisure; games can be serious as well as entertaining. A game can be mistaken for a non-game if its goal and rules are held up as ultimate principles of reality, or inevitable structures of social life organisation. No religiously devout person regards her religion as a game, and indeed the differences between religious activity and games seem obvious enough as to require no comment. But religion can be inadvertently transformed into a game—a role play game, specifically—if we focus on religion’s form and appearance more than on its substance. When this happens, it is no longer religion. Paganism today is particularly susceptible to this problem, because of its popular focus on projecting the superficial appearance of magical power and wisdom.
I turn my attention to contemporary Druidism first, because it is the area of Paganism which as a teenager I encountered first. One feature of ancient Druids that almost all classical commentators agreed about is that they were philosophers. Yet, oddly, this feature is never revived, or, at any rate, I am not aware of any Druidic organisation today which has attempted to establish itself in a pagan community as its philosophical association. There are several reasons for this. One is that the social conditions in which Druids discharged their temporal obligations no longer exist. The obligations and powers held by ancient Druids were tailored for a tribal and chiefdom structure that western cultures replaced centuries ago with state-level monarchies and democracies. Druids provided the inter-tribal agreement on social, political and spiritual values that are currently provided by state-run schools, the mass media, ecclesiastical religions, and the like. Druids could, if invited, supply this service to the Pagan community if not to the larger society in which we live, to supplement national institutions. But I do not see that invitation coming at this time because much of what contemporary Druidism has to offer is difficult to take seriously. Efforts to revive Druidism have focused not on foundational principles but instead on surface appearances, a focus which I characterise as role-play.
The game goal and rule, or “golden rule”, of “Reconstructionist” Druidism, is to legitimise itself by reproduction of ancient religious ritual, practice and custom as exactly as can be done within the bounds of permissibility set by the larger culture in which the revival is a sub-culture. “Reconstructionism” means to research history, archaeology, folklore, language, and so on, as carefully as can be, in order to build again what has been lost. It is believed that this rigourous scholarly basis would elevate modern Druidism to a level where it could be respected by other religions and by the general public. However, I doubt that would serve to make Paganism more respectable in the end. Paganism as a form of the strict revival of ancient religious ideas, merely employs history as a storage-space for costumes. Even Wicca is not immune to this criticism, since so many of its adherents emotionally identify with the (somewhat mythic) witches of mediaeval and pre-Christian Europe.
Another result of this illusion is that in their earnestness to reproduce the ancient ways, they ignore the modern ways, the Celtic culture that is still alive and well in the Celtic nations. There is a thriving Celtic cultural awareness today, evidenced by the popularity of Celtic arts and the proliferation of Celtic music and culture festivals. Ireland, Scotland, and Canada’s Maritimes in particular export their music all around the world. In my experience, the large majority of Celtic Pagans do not know much about Celtic culture or history. Very few could tell the difference between a jig and a reel, how to make colcannon or haggis, what year Ireland achieved political independence from England, what a “Welsh Not” looks like and what it was used for, and what the Highland Clearances were, just to name a few examples. Yet it is a contradiction to say, “I am a Celt”, and have no bearings in Celtic culture.
No Celtic Pagan I know would agree that her religion is tantamount to an elabourate role-play game—it has always been vigorously denied by almost everyone to whom I have ever suggested this idea. But in the matter of the emphasis on the academic, the evidence may be found in the teaching courses and “mission statements” of various organisations and groups. The notion of historical justification was once “rare and daring in the history of Druidic revivals”, but now has become the standard to which new American Druidic and Celtic groups measure themselves. It achieved its original purpose, which was to prevent the group from being categorised together with the eclectic weirdness of New Age spirituality. But it exchanges this advantage for a peculiar kind of drawback: the confusion of meticulous attention to historical scholarship with genuine spiritual culture and experience. The two are not the same, however much they may help each other. Insofar as American Druidism emphasises the scholarship, it opens itself to the charge of being an elabourate role-play game, a cultural dress-up so deeply ingrained in the consciousness of the practitioner that the very validity and authenticity of the religion is measured by the accuracy of its research. The practice also tends to lead to the formation of splinter groups.
The practical results of this programme have been many. There has been an anachronistic “living in the past”. Differences in opinion and interpretation of research sources has divided, and not united, the community. Some have made their scholarly knowledge a basis for acclaiming superiority for themselves or their tradition. And finally, there has been a tendency to obscure the principles of the spirituality in a mist of scholarly jargon and technical terms with non-obvious meanings. In short, this over-riding emphasis on scholarship has been at the expense of spirituality. This is a disorder, because academic knowledge is no substitute for, and not interchangeable with, spiritual awareness. As I see it, and as an academic myself, this kind of knowledge is only an aid, or tool, for reaching spiritual awareness. As such it is one aid among many, including the physical senses, one’s own intuition or reason, perhaps also one’s magickal senses (whatever they may be), and certainly also one’s access to community life.
There is another kind of role-play game which is in some sense the opposite of that which arises from too much emphasis on the intellectual side. It arises from too much emphasis on the emotional and intuitive side. Indeed the belief that a person’s “intellectual and rational” side is separate from her “emotional and intuitive” is one of its symptoms. A look in any large bookstore will reveal a startlingly large selection on occultism, that perhaps would not have been there fifty years ago. The titles are indicative of what appears to be a grand “awakening”, composed of ancient ideas recently revived, and ideas imported from Asia or from aboriginal peoples. It would be wrong, however, to suppose that the “awakening” represents a purely introverted, inner transformation, or an “evolution” towards “higher” levels, however much it appears to be so, and also claims to be so. Numerous texts on magic promise the reader that through diligent practice of the exercises outlined within its pages, increased control is possible over one’s self, other people, and such ephemera as “luck”. The personal benefits promised to students of pulp-fiction magic books are nonetheless worldly benefits because they are to do with one’s embodied, worldly being. Some of these embodied benefits appeal to our sense of ego, such as the spells designed to give a headache to one’s teacher or supervisor at work. Some of these embodied benefits are well worth having, such as improved health or control of one’s temper, but popular-press books on magic advocate a means to achieve them that are not indicative of a purely inward transformation.
The purpose of magic is to exercise power over the world. It is an outwardly directed activity. Its basic structure is causality: if certain spells are recited or rituals performed properly, with one’s intentionality and energy properly focused and directed, then an expected result will occur. This is thought to be a non-sequitor by logically or scientifically minded people because there is no obvious, direct relation between the spells and rituals, and the expected result, except perhaps a symbolic one. The rejoinder that “magic is the Pagan style of prayer”, or a reduction of the emphasis on the metaphysics involved to emphasise instead the therapeutic effect, redeems it somewhat of its pejorative flair, by not expecting that magic actually “work”. But nonetheless, prayer is also an outward directed activity. Prayer is the petitioning of a deity for a service or a boon, for which gifts, service, or worship is offered as a kind of payment. If there is no God, or if the Gods are disinterested, then prayer commits the same non-sequitor as magic: confusing the order of our ideas for the order of the rest of the world.
There is a style of meditation called “Visualisation” that seems to be popular among Pagan practitioners of magic. In this style, one settles into a comfortable position, tunes out sensory distractions, and concentrates on controlling the imagination. The meditator imagines herself travelling through the spirit world, passing the typical trials of shaman flight (narrow bridges, guardians at the gate, etc.), and conversing with gods. With this style, it is easy to mistake one’s visualisation for fantasy. To avoid this, one tries to allow the fantasy to take on a life of its own, by allowing a free improvisation, harbouring no expectations. It is believed that what emerges from free spontaneity comes from a spiritual source deeper or higher than the level of the conscious, individual self. This is an idea that I believe is not entirely disrespectable since free spontaneity is the activity from which emerges new, creative, intellectual or artistic vision. Visualisation creates the interesting paradoxical situation in which one both controls and also releases control of one’s own imagination. In this style of meditation it is possible to “fail”, although failure here is to be interpreted non-judgementally. One fails at this style of meditation when distractions such as noises, itches, and disconnected thoughts render the meditator unable to focus upon the visualisation. One also fails when the result does not materialise. But there is a different, deeper kind of failure: it is possible to fool yourself with the fantasy, and hence become trapped in it, in which case even meditation becomes an empty display of the superficial appearance of spirituality. In this case, the act is played out not before the world, but within one’s own mind. One could become ‘addicted’ to one’s own fantasy life, in much the same way that for some people, movies and television form a surrogate reality. Thus even meditation, the most introverted of spiritual activities, can be subverted into an activity that prevents, rather than sustains, spiritual health, and imprisons rather than liberates the seeker. Indeed, the illusion of spirituality may become so elabourate that it starts to generate mystical experiences for people! But such experiences cannot contradict the parameters of the illusion, for if they did, they would go unrecognised. They must remain within the range of what the game-rule deems acceptable, for otherwise it is not a part of the game. In the end such experiences are traps, serving to further imprison the seeker in her illusion.
It is usually fairly easy to spot people who have fallen into this particular illusion. They tend to speak of places and things in terms of its “energy”. If they are in a relationship or a marriage, the partners were “destined for each other”, or “recognised from a past life” (terms also widely and wrongly used as pick-up lines). They speak of “spiritual progress” and will often evaluate other people’s worth according to how “advanced on the path” and “balanced” they think someone is. Much emphasis is placed on “learning” while at the same time academics, higher education, and “book knowledge” are dismissed as having little or no value. For the most part, this is nothing more than a language for amateur psychoanalysis. This language bears many of the qualities I have described as properly belonging to the spiritual life. Yet it is immediately revealed as a disorder by the way it is unable to explain concepts that are central to its vocabulary, such as “balance” and “progress”, and the way it is blind to any reality that diverges from the presupposed expectations. It also frequently results in people being unable to see if and how they harm others: disparaging judgements of someone’s character may be based on an interpretation of an astrological chart, a tarot card reading, or her “aura”. Insults and other attacks on someone’s self esteem may be justified as a form of “teaching”. Without discounting the possibility that the things described by this language are real, things like energy, soul-mates, destiny, and spiritual evolution, nevertheless may I re-cast an ancient saying: “there are many who carry the magic wand, but the Magicians are few.”
Both prayer and magic are indicative of deep commitments to worldly life, and acceptance of externally received standards of excellence, (i.e., “results”), although they appear to be committed to transcendental purposes. A truly inward religious transformation would be a transformation of values, attitude, emotion, intentionality, and consciousness. This inward transformation can be thought of as ‘magic’ only in the most broad and loose definitions of magic, such as that offered by Alistair Crowley: “the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with will.” Being committed to the world is not at all wrong. The embodied world is, after all, the world we live in, and we have positive moral obligations to seek its improvement. Magic and prayer can become a role play game if we loose ourselves in the tools, trappings, and details of it all, or let the practice of magic substitute for the inward thought and outward action that leads to worldly transformation in a very real, nonsymbolic way. In the details of magic one finds a great deal of complicated information: tables of elemental correspondences; associations of Hebrew letters with Vedic gods; laws of sympathy, resonance, and contagion that supposedly govern the behaviour of magical energy; and so on. The complexity of such details can be hypnotic. For someone lost in it, every day is Halloween (not Samhain), and every random rustle of leaves portents a destined event and confirms his place at the centre of a divine design.
The same hypnotic complexity of the details of magic can stimulate thought, much like a work of art, and that is the reason the details were developed in the first place. But it is the thoughtand not the scrupulous observance of the details that leads to the results. It is thought which motivates, and informs with purpose and direction, our actions. The associations and correspondences of magic theory are in the mind, and they are as real as the mind that envisions them. If we think of them as part of the nature of the universe, and external to the mind, then we are guilty of the charges levelled against religion by the likes of Feuerbach, Nietzsche, and Sir James Frazer. Religion commits the logical fallacy of mistaking the order of human thought for the order of the rest of the universe as well. It is the reverseof this principle which expresses the true relation: as the mind is part of the universe, therefore the order of the universe also governs the mind. It is not the order of the mind that governs the universe.
This logical difficulty can be sorted by someone committed to the deeper meanings which the details may communicate and inspire. Spirituality consists in meaning, and the inner activity of informing all of one’s thinking, perception, and action with meaning. The details of magic can supply a sense of meaning when they are treated as an inspirational riddle, or as a symbolic code by which meanings may be represented and communicated. The important wisdom that one learns from contemplating the Cabbalistic Tree of Life, for instance, is that the Tree is a subjective (not “relative”) trackway for the transmission of the divine power. It moves from Kether (“The Crown”; Godhead, Pure Spirit, or unmanifest possibility) down to Malkuth (“The Kingdom”; manifestation, worldly-embodied being). It also represents the aspiration of Malkuth to transcend worldliness and become Kether. The other eight Sephiroth between the top and bottom represent stages along the journey. Phrased this way, Cabbala is remarkably Platonic, and deeply philosophical.
There exists, unfortunately, a class of popular books on magic which have as their purpose not the stimulation of meaning, but instead the “worldly” preoccupation with achieving “results”. This result-oriented practice of magic circumvents altogether the meditative and contemplative aspect, and becomes a matter of theatrical performance. They teach the readers how to appear and behave, (“the costume”), what spells to recite and what motions to repeat (“the script”), how to decorate their homes and ritual spaces (“the set”), and select their tools (“the props”). Such books encourage the readers to immerse themselves deeper in the empty role play. Twenty-one short lessons qualifies someone to identify herself as a Druid by learning to project the superficial appearance of the Druid. One gains a fleeting aesthetic satisfaction, and perhaps the admiration of gullible friends, but little else.
I know this to be a role-play game because there is one class of “worldly result” which is never addressed by popular-press books on magic, which would to be addressed if it were more comprehensive, and that is social and political reality. What philosopher John McMurtry has called “the ancient taboo”—the unwillingness to question or criticise the social and political authority in which one lives—has captured Pagans as surely as most everyone else. Where political action is advocated at all, it is usually confined to efforts to achieve for Pagans the same political rights enjoyed by other religions. This might be a worthy cause, but it is grounded in the ‘fairness’ principle of liberal democracy and not in the ‘underground’ and ‘heterodox’ principles of Paganism. A religion is impotent and false if it repudiates or separates itself from the material conditions in which the believers live, or takes no responsibility for them. Pagan magic achieves that separation by restricting the debate to the satisfaction of private want, and enabling the practitioner to sustain the illusion of being powerful, wise and ‘awakened’, privy to the hidden secrets of the universe. Although environmental concerns do get raised, the total crisis in the environment is rarely discussed. If it is discussed, it is blamed on consumer gluttony, or ‘humanity’ generally. An analysis of the economic structures which not only enable, but positively require the devastation of the global environment for their perpetuation, is never discussed. Nor is it suggested that those attracted to a “warrior” path might find spiritual expression in the organised resistance and protest against those economic structures. There are precious few Pagan authors willing to speak daring truths about our social and political life. Starhawk comes to mind as one who has been doing just that for decades. But most of our brightest and best, or at least our most well known, do not. And this is again indicative of the taboo against questioning authority.
All this may appear as the crankiness of a cynic, and a betrayal to my Pagan friends. I fondly recall being criticised by Druids for my “negative attitude”. I am actually optimistic about the future of Paganism and its ability to produce spiritual experiences and also earn respect. But these problems that I have described are serious, and have been a direct result of the misplaced use of the tools. The role-play aspect of magic and Paganism gives critics and religious bigots more reason to regard Paganism as a toy for the spiritually childish, and so dismiss it.
If the problem arose from improper use of the tools, then we solve this problem by understanding exactly what the tools are for. Whenever the habitual scepticism of academic knowledge gets in the way, we must revitalise our sense of place, and of wonder, by looking at the world with our other tools, especially the intuitions, the senses, and plain dialogue with friends. What I have called “the details of magic”, the elabourate correspondences and laws, serve two purposes. One is as a meditative device: they are the mantras and mandalas that facilitate and stimulate thought. The other use is as a common language by which Pagans may communicate their religious ideas and experiences. We need to have a common language: it is the medium by which we exchange vital thought and feeling. The distinct vocabulary of magick makes it a legitimate subculture. It is what makes community a wellspring of spiritual refreshment.
Another solution to the problem is revealed by understanding the nature of the game. For any Reconstructionist Pagan faith, the goal of the game is the accurate revival of historic religious custom and practice. The rule is to achieve that revival with a minimum of imaginative invention and eclectic borrowing, and with no significant challenge to the primary values of the larger society in which the revival is a subculture. The goal of Reconstructionist Paganism is thought to lead to the higher-order payoff of transforming the practitioner into a more highly evolved spiritual being; namely, a Druid. For any system of magic, the goal is to achieve power over the world, often including power over one’s own self, and the rule is to do so using the methods prescribed by the details. Again, the knowledge and practice of magic is thought to transform the practitioner; there is much talk of “awakening”, “enlightenment”, and “salvation” as the ultimate goal wherein magic power over the world is a kind of instrumental aid, or perhaps incidental by-product.
In either case, the rules of the game, and the nature of the goal itself, lends to the goal a pervasive sense of obligation and necessity to strive and to compete for success (to “play”), to count how often the goal was achieved or measure how close the player is to the goal (the “score”), to regard with antagonism any other players (the “competition”; and that is how witch-wars are begun), and to measure one’s worthiness by one’s success rate compared to that of others (the “winner”). Adherence to the rules is enforced by the approval or disapproval of the other players, as well as by the belief that only by adherence to the rules can the goal be achieved. Pursuit of the goal becomes an activity more noble and wise than the “base” pursuit of other “lesser” goals. This is, of course, partly a result of the culturally-indoctrinated supposition that religion is a deeply serious matter, in fact matter of life and death if its consequences are extended to their furthest limit, and therefore a matter that must be approached with special reverence. Therefore we dress up in our “Sunday best” when we go to church and we repudiate as “blasphemy” any casual or flippant way of talking about religion.
In fact, the matters about which religions are concerned are indeed matters of life and death. Religion supplies the meaning which we attribute to life and death, and to other things. However, this is no reason to treat them as untouchable. Any spiritual matter is of ultimate scope and universal importance and therefore touches every aspect of our lives; hence there need be no real division between the sacred and the mundane. Ordinary activities are uplifted and transformed into sacred activities by nothing more than undertaking them with a spiritual attitude. This is revealed particularly well in the ‘crafty’ character of a witch’s magick, in which ordinary activities such as sewing, cooking, gardening, and sweeping the floor, are said to be means for the transmission of purpose-laden magical energy. To refer to magick as a ‘craft’ at all, aligns it with other skilled trades like baking, carpentry, and masonry. When the boundaries between the sacred and the mundane are blurred, it is possible to grant to these ordinary activities additional layers of meaning, and thereby spiritualise them.
If we think of spirituality as a serious pursuit, the final goal which we are striving to attain becomes somehow lofty and profound, an end in itself or an achievement that results in special payoff. This high-minded approach is indicative of the attitude that the spiritual and the ordinary are sharply divided, an attitude which can be dangerous to one’s spirituality. It can have the detrimental effect of making religious activities into obligatory routines, a custom or tradition that must be dutifully conserved against liberal incursions, and certainly not something to be enjoyed. One can be said to “rejoice” at a religious ritual, but such rejoicing would lack the genuinely playful and celebratory quality of celebrations not attached to rules of form, such as that which occurs every New Year’s Eve. Games are played because they are fun to play. The final goal of any game is to have a good time playing it. A game can become an activity to be undertaken with enthusiastic abandon, by simply understanding the game to be a nothing but a game. The structure of a game is that of a goal-oriented activity wherein rules constrain the method to achieve the goal, however the ultimate purpose of a game, beyond any stated purpose, is to have fun. When the goal of the game is known to be trivial and yet we happily enter the game anyway, we are released from the obligation to win, which the game, if understood as a non-game, appears to impose upon us. When the game is seen as a game, suddenly we may approach it with a sense of humour. The challenge of the rules ceases to be intimidating. The compulsion to overcome the difficulty of the rules by breaking them likewise ceases. At the same time breaking the rules becomes an open possibility because there is no inner commitment to enforce them. Any stress or anxiety we may have experienced due to failure or the difficulty of the rules, utterly disappears; both losing and winning are no longer relevant categories. They are all unnecessary complications of our own invention. With this re-arrangement of meaning, any religion may be understood as a game, treated as a game, and nevertheless remain a fertile source of spiritual fulfilment.
But there is another game, which we have been required to play with seriousness, in which the goal is not a religious experience but is nonetheless a matter of life and death. In this game, the ultimate goal is survival-success, and for our competitors we have the natural environment, with its predators and hostile weather and hard-to-access resources, as well as other players. It is a game haunted by self-contradictory properties. The goal of the game is for the individual to survive and prosper with measurably greater material wealth than the other competitors, and yet this is not possible unless one throws in his lot with others in collaborative enterprises. In this game there is no level playing field, for some competitors begin the game with more resources and equipment than others; this is equivalent to a “head start”. It is a game which we are taught to play from childhood on, and taught to treat not as a game but as the inevitable structure of reality. We all know its commands: “Only the strong survive”, “you must work for a living”, “there are no free lunches”. Yet this is exactly the same game that teaches that we are all “free”, “individual”, “possessors of a boundless liberty”. Winners emerge from the field of play as the very things which made their victory possible fall dead at their feet. There may yet come a day when the field of play shall be littered with corpses: clear-cut forests, unbalanced ecosystems, extinct species, exploited workers, impoverished nations, overflowing dumps and landfills, unbreathable air, undrinkable water, and infertile earth. It is a game doomed to failure not only because of its inability to take itself as a game, but also because of its self-negating foundations.
But there is still another game, a deeper game, a dramatic role-play game of cosmic proportions in which God divides herself, and the fragments forget their origin. It is a game in which God puts on the mask of you and I, and the birds in the sky, so that She may come to know herself and experience the bliss of both recognition and reunion.