Amateur Religious Ethnography Botched: Paganism and Scholarship Series (archive 2012)

Sarah Veale is a writer and religious studies student in Toronto Canada, with an academic and personal interest in Western esotericism. She currently writes about her experiences on Invocatio, a blog that discusses matters pertinent to Western Esotericism and the study of religion.

Skepoet: So at your blog, Invocatio, you write about Western Esotericism, how did you get involved or interested in it?

Sarah Veale: As someone who is both a spiritual seeker and a student of religion, I really wanted a space where I could hash out these ideas beyond the classroom. The blog actually started out focused on Buddhism. At the time, I was personally exploring eastern religions, and having some serious philosophical differences with those perspectives, and wanted to be able to think out loud about them.

Ironically, I found that I was frequently comparing Buddhist ideas to concepts in Western Esotericism, with which I’ve had an on-an-off relationship with since 1995. It got to the point where I was very rarely talking about Buddhism unless it was in a magical context.  It sort of became a joke that my blog, then called X,Y and Zen, talked about everything but Zen!  Finally, I threw in the towel, said it is what it is, and decided to focus on what I was really interested in.

With Invocatio, I attempt to discuss Western esotericism in a mostly academic context, but still have fun with it. Sometimes this means dismissing cultural tropes about magic, sometimes it means embracing them. I also bring in what I’m learning in the classroom and attempt to apply it to esoteric concepts or current cultural situations, and you can see these topics ebb-and-flow depending on what’s going on there. I’d say the blog embraces a multi-disciplinary approach towards studying a very particular area.

Skepoet: What is your religious background?  What are your beliefs now?

 Sarah Veale: I was born into a Roman Catholic family. My teenage years were spent attending a non-denominational Christian evangelical church. I’m not gonna lie, this was a huge part of my life. But you have to keep in mind, this was in the late ’80’s before evangelicals became highly politicized, so it was a different atmosphere than the one we have today. I attended bible camp, was baptized, participated in church youth groups—you name it. However, when people accepted Jesus as their saviour, I thought it would be like this super-big revelatory moment, and for me it wasn’t. I expected to have this big powerful experience, and didn’t get it. In hindsight, I suppose that was the beginning of my religious skepticism.

I began exploring ceremonial magick in my early 20’s, and this seems to be what stuck. In addition to an eclectic solitary practice, I’ve worked with a couple Wiccan groups, later explored Buddhism, and was most recently involved with a Thelemic order. Despite having practiced magick for so long, it took me a long time to really acknowledge it as my spiritual path. I currently self-identify as a Thelemite.

Skepoet: How does your academic background inform this?

Sarah Veale: Well, ideally, the two are kept separate. I’m a big believer in not mixing one’s personal beliefs with one’s academic work. I know it’s near impossible to not let some biases creep into one’s work, but I am a big fan of at least attempting to be objective. That said, the study of religion has forced me to evaluate my beliefs and reconcile them in a wider context.

For example, with Western esotericism, you get very similar accusations across the board: Mathers invented the Golden Dawn rituals, Blavatsky falsified her experiences, and Edward Kelley wasn’t a medium but an opportunist. It can go on and on. The picture ends up being painted that esotericism is rife with egotistic charlatans hell-bent on advancing an agenda created out of thin air. And don’t get me wrong, I think we should be skeptical of people making big claims that can’t be verified by outside markers. But unfortunately, this judgmental sort of approach also has the effect of marginalizing those who utilize such practices as a spiritual path, as well pushing the academic study of esotericism to the margins. We no longer take the phenomena on their own terms, but rather relate them to the dominant practices of the day, which somehow are devoid of these questionable aspects. This is dangerous and naïve.

However, I think the academic study of religion suggests that any religious phenomenon is manufactured. If you go back far enough, all belief is fabricated and subsequently advanced with some sort of agenda. Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad—you name it—all these guys started out on the edge of the religious thoughts of their day. It was only as the result of social and historical processes enacted over time that these movements turned into the global forces they are now. To me, it becomes apparent that time and numbers are the only things that make one path seem more legitimate than another.

While I think this has the effect of turning many academics into atheists, for me, it has only strengthened my personal…I don’t want to say belief, but need for some sort of spiritual structure in a functional way. That is, in a way that fulfills some sort of personal need that defies rational articulation. Knowing that every religion is built on a tenuous foundation had the strange effect of making magick just as legitimate as any other spiritual path. Furthermore, I think the functional view of religion is really coherent with magick as an applied tool for self-realization. Which is how I see magick anyway, I’m not a true believer by any stretch of the imagination.

For some reason, however, society makes fun of people who believe in these sorts of approaches while emphasizing tolerance for religious views which have just as much hocus pocus. For example, the Catholic use of relics immediately comes to mind as one religious practice that is deeply imbued with supernatural beliefs. To accept one view, but not another, to me, is a hideous double standard. Either all spiritual approaches are legitimate, or they are all false. The study of religion has really made me conscious of how, as a society, notions of acceptance are applied on seemingly arbitrary, but usually political, grounds. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a class that preaches tolerance of diverse views, and then five minutes later everyone is having a laugh at Scientology. You can’t do that and still claim some sort of enlightened ecumenism! That’s not how it works! If anything, this sort of invisible hostility to religious “otherness”—which really isn’t so “other” after all—shows the necessity of bringing marginal practices to light and emphasizing the need for tolerance of all spiritual beliefs.

Skepoet: What about Thelema appeals to you?

 Sarah Veale: There are so many things that appeal to me about Thelema that it’s hard to know where to start. I think it appeals to me on both a philosophical and spiritual level. Philosophically, I think Thelema suggests that we have a participatory stake in our destiny. And this, to me, is extremely powerful. It completely abrogates any ideas of victimhood and places the individual in full command of their life. Thelema suggests that the choices we make are part of our will, and we have the ability to use our will to make our own choices. That’s very intense stuff!

I also find appealing the lack of dualism, which is a Platonic idea that the spirit is good and anything related to the body is bad. To me, this is a false dichotomy that negates the human experience. I mean, even the most spiritual person is still human, so who are we fooling with all this “super spiritual” nonsense? Eliminating dualism is, in itself, is a huge step forward. Not just within Western views of religion, which are heavily steeped in these ideas, but also within esotericism. I find Crowley’s embrace of the human body liberating. It really opens up, not just being human, but the possibility of fully realizing the totality of that experience. This is not to say that Thelema does away with the spirit, but rather that these two aspects, I find, are integrated with each other.

Of course, once you get rid of dualism, which reinforced female subjugation in a religious context, you clear the way for women to assert their equality and their power. And I think Thelema captures this wonderfully. I’m not going to pretend that women are always treated equally or that Crowley was the world’s biggest feminist, but he did do a lot to provide for central female roles within Thelema. Furthermore, he highlighted a variety of images and roles while recreating rituals that reflect gender parity in a way that wasn’t being done before. Are some of Crowley’s ideas heteronormative? Yes. But Thelema begins to bring women into the picture, not as imitation men, but as their own being. I know I sound like an apologist, but there is a lot of phenomenal imagery in Thelema, and I feel it is very important for women to have that well of inspiration to draw upon. So, this also appeals to me.

Skepoet: Why do you think so many people take an ecumenical posture while carving out specific niche exclusions for their tolerance or willingness to take seriously those ideas?

 Sarah Veale: This is a big question and I’m not sure there is one single answer. For one, I think a lot depends on what we see as normative, that is, acceptable and unquestionable. Second, our current ideas of religious norms seem closely tied to ideas of cultural acceptance. This works by assuming that if we are to be accepting of one culture, then it follows that we must also be tolerant of their beliefs and practices, and religion fits under this umbrella. And I think that is a good thing, and that it is very important to respect and understand cultural identity.

However, once you take away cultural justification for religion, things lose these obvious social markers. Religion is no longer a phenomenon that can be tied to a particular group or idea, which society has demanded acceptance of in a very explicit way. So, on the one hand, you get tolerance for polytheistic Hindus, whose religion is tied to their cultural identity, but something like neo-paganism becomes more difficult to understand because it isn’t coming from this explicit place of long-spanning cultural heritage. Sadly, there seems to be a societal bias against religious choice. Inherited religion is something society views as good, but when someone actively chooses a faith outside of these parameters, there becomes this notion that people are “experimenting” or “confused.” Couple this with the deeply ingrained nature of our personal views of religion and it can make those who choose outside these boundaries very difficult to come to terms with.

I also think our society pays a lot of attention to tolerance, but in reality, we all have our irrational blind spots.  I am just as guilty as anyone when it comes to this. We all bring our biases to the table and to see beyond them requires a constant questioning of where our assumptions are coming from. Not only does this take massive effort, it also requires looking honestly at one’s own views, and that can get messy and uncomfortable. If you’re in the accepted majority, why bother with it if you don’t have to? Of course, this adds a personal and political dimension to the problem of religious hegemony.

 Skepoet Are there any other nondual paths that interest you?

Sarah Veale: To be honest, it’s not something I really think about. My practice is quite fluid and eclectic. For me, it’s not necessarily about following this path or that path, it’s about following my own path, if that makes any sense.

Skepoet Why have you decided to practice eclectically?  

Sarah Veale Well, it’s not really a conscious decision—I didn’t wake up one morning and say, “I’ll be eclectic today!” That’s just how it goes, you know?

Skepoet: Are you familiar with Eric Hobsbawm concept of invented traditions?

Sarah Veale: No, I’m not. Do tell!

Skepoet: Here’s the quote:

“‘Invented tradition’ is taken to mean a set of practices, normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behaviour by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past. In fact, where possible, they normally attempt to establish continuity with a suitable historic past…. However, insofar as there is such reference to a historic past, the peculiarity of ‘invented’
traditions is that the continuity with it is largely fictitious. In short, they are responses to novel situations which take the form of reference to old situations, or which establish their own past by
quasi-obligatory repetition.” – Hobsbawm, Eric (1983) Introduction: Inventing Tradition. In: Hobsbawm and Ranger, pp. 1-14.

I was wondering if you think this applies to Reconstructionism at all?

Sarah Veale: Ah, that’s really interesting. It is absolutely applicable to a wide range of esoteric and neo-pagan activity. Everything from Ceremonial Magick to Wicca to Freemasonry attempts to create some sort of legitimating link with the past, which is then reflected through its rituals. The validity of these “historic” claims, however, do not seem to be borne out by scholarship. For example, Ronald Hutton took a lot of heat when he suggested there was no continuous link between today’s pagan movement and ancient paganism. Of course, absence of evidence doesn’t mean this activity did not exist, but it does mean we can’t conclusively say that it did, at least not in the way a lot of these groups claim.

It is interesting to note that this “historical” foundation myth differs significantly from mainstream foundation myths. Mainstream religions usually posit an extraordinary experience—say a burning bush or virgin birth, as the social unifier. You ask how Islam began, and you tell the story of Muhammad and the angel Gabriel.  But what’s proffered with these Reconstructionist traditions isn’t some phenomenal tale. What’s brought forward is the myth of “timelessness.” I wonder if this is a reaction to modern life, which is scientifically skeptical and rapidly changes? There seems to be an anchor of permanence in this myth that is absent from modern society, and it also evades explaining the miraculous in an atmosphere that scoffs at such phenomena. I mean, today we would laugh at anyone who claimed a virgin birth. Maybe the myths change to fit the times. I’m sure some academic out there has an answer for this beyond my self-indulgent chin-scratching!

But, and I really stress this point, this does not negate the validity of these practices for those who participate in them. The ritual and symbolism of these traditions, however tenuous the link with the past, can still hold enormous meaning and power for those involved. And this, I think, is what spirituality does best—create meaning. This goes back to what we were talking about earlier: how all religion is a manufactured response to some need. This is not to say that these old traditions, however minimally understood, should not be drawn upon—absolutely not. But rather, the symbolic and mythological import is enough on its own to be a legitimizing force

Skepoet: So what do you of tradition origin myths such as Gardner’s encounter with the traditional coven?

Sarah Veale: Well, Gardener’s Wicca is sort of a witchy-stereotype “Best of” list. He did a great job stitching a variety of sources into a coherent narrative. There’s some classical paganism in there, some ceremonial magic, and a dash of the witch aesthetic developed during the witch hunts.  What’s striking is how Gardner’s interpretation of witchcraft caught on in the public consciousness. Today, Wicca is a recognized religion at many public levels, and the movement, if I’m not mistaken, continues to grow. Obviously, he tapped into the zeitgeist.

But I think the obvious answer to your question is this: suggesting a link with the past is far more legitimating than claiming to be the guy who put everything together. It takes something personal and makes it suprapersonal. It’s the difference between following a time-honoured tradition or the one your neighbour invented last week. Obviously, the former has a better cachet.

Skepoet: What do you see as the limitations on critically studying the history of Occultism? 

Sarah Veale : Well, I’m currently in a religious studies program, but I will try to suggest what others in the field of occult research have suggested are some impediments. They seem to be two-fold, and involve both institutional and field-related issues.

Institutionally, it’s only in the past few decades that the occult, and I’m subsuming a whole host of activity such as paganism and western esotericism into this category, has really been accepted as a subject of academic study. Until recently, there was a tendency to confuse subject matter and method, and I think there was an impression that those working in this area were going to be reading tarot cards and summoning demons instead of instead of writing papers and doing research. Ronald Hutton observed that the most frequent question response he gets from colleagues isn’t one of magic’s cultural or social import, but rather whether or not spells work! So this suggests exactly where the level of discourse is in wider academia.

I touched on this earlier, but the occult seems to transgress notions of acceptability, many times in a very conscious manner as a strategy in and of itself. This has obvious ramifications when attempting to understand it within the codified world of academics, which has largely excluded it from discourse. For the longest time, magic was seen as a “deviant” form of religion, meaning it’s an aberration of normal practice. And this translates to the institutional level where research into these areas can be seen as aberrant of academic practice! There is actually a movement among some scholars of the antique period to cease using terms like “magic” altogether because they carry such pejorative baggage. The theory is that by even calling something magic, it introduces, in the words of Lyons and Reimer, a “virus” into the discussion which obfuscates objective analysis.

The third institutional issue is one which is just starting to come out, and that’s over the question of how much those studying magic should reveal themselves to be practitioners. Amy Hale, and others who recently presented at the American Academy of Religions conference, are on the leading edge of this debate.  It seems that the above biases against the occult get amplified when scholars personally identify as part of that world. Now, the counter-argument is that all those in the field of religion are “encouraged” to keep their beliefs on the down-low, not just pagans. However, my personal experience suggests this isn’t the case. I have professors who openly acknowledge their personal religious pursuits in a very open manner within the classroom. But I think those who both study and practice in the field are held to a much higher standard, and this probably has a lot to do with attempting to establish this as a serious academic pursuit in the face of significant pressure. Caesar’s wife must be above reproach.

Once those barriers are passed, we need to turn to fieldwork, which has its own set of issues! I think the biggest problem is that it’s sort of traditional for authorship of occult documents to be…I think a nice word is unclear. There’s a lot of pseudepigraphia going on and tall tales being told. You know, the hereditary Wiccan whose great-grandmother was a witch and knew Aleister Crowley—those sorts of things. So, I think there are challenges there with sussing out the historical reality of the situation. There is also a lot of circular causation which plagues the occult world—where the effect becomes the cause projected backwards and so on. The Rosicrucians are a great example of this, where a movement that never existed turns into a real movement who then picks up the earlier mythology as literal fact. In other words, the copy-cat effect becomes the real manifestation! While I am certainly still a student, it seems to me of the utmost importance that source material is understood “as is” without coming to any conclusions that are really just pure conjecture. That rigor needs to be there.


Skepoet: Outside of Hutton, have you seen a lot of good scholarship on the topic?

Sarah Veale: What I’ve seen tends to be parenthetical comments. However, scholars, such as Antoine Faivre, have expressed similar concerns to Hutton. In addition, Wouter Hanegraaff has observed that the field is often considered “rejected knowledge” and that scholars in this area face much difficulty getting their work accepted by mainstream academia. He has a book on the intersection of esoteric studies and academia coming out soon which will, to the best of my knowledge, represent the first substantial research into the issue.

That said, I would be remiss if I did not mention the great advances that have taken place in the last decade. While the area still has challenges, at the same time, there are now journals and conferences and university departments devoted to studying esotericism and the occult. Things are looking up.

Skepoet: Anything you’d like to say in closing?

Sarah Veale: Thank you again for thinking of me. This interview really gave me a lot to think about and was great fun!


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