to choose

Intensive Care Unit - by U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 1st Class Shane T. McCoy. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Writing about social issues isn’t the most fun thing in the world, but sometimes I just feel like clarifying ideas around what seem like lopsided topics.

“Abortion rights” were one of the sacred tenets of my youth, and I would still push for an intelligent application of these now (as for instance is needed in Northern Ireland, where women are denied recourse to termination of pregnancy, and suffer what I consider an appalling injustice).

The way these have been framed by some feminist abortion campaigners has been very unfortunate at times though, indeed somewhat desperate, beyond all common sense.

To my mind it is absurd to think that a fertilised egg is a “person” (though obviously it may become one eventually), or that a seven month old fetus is nothing but a redundant organ that the mother may do what she wants with, as if only one being were involved.

On the one side we have had (usually religious) protesters trying to prevent all terminations, and on the other have been radical feminists demanding that a fetus of any age should be legally abortable at the sole discretion of the mother, as if it were her absolute property, and did not in any way count as a human life. Sometimes it is pointed out that the fetus is entirely dependent upon the mother, and it is asserted that only the mother’s bodily autonomy needs to be morally considered.

Taken to their logical conclusions, the two positions would lead to every mother that unavoidably miscarries being charged with accidental manslaughter, or the parents of every new-born being able to kill their baby, thanks to its total dependence upon them.

There is I think, if you do not take the absolute position of every fertilised egg being a human life, a line to be drawn somewhere, after which the personhood of the fetus needs to be considered. Beyond a certain point a pregnant woman carrying a fetus cannot be said to be autonomous, anymore than a parent can be said to be independent of their child. It might not be nice if you don’t want it, it might be terrifying, but that’s how human life works. In general no one gets to walk away from their child without someone else taking care of it, not without consequences, and I have never met a mother who felt that their child, the person, didn’t exist before birth.

This is the glaring piece of dogma in feminist thinking on the subject, as often expressed. The need to, at all costs, deny the fetus any “rights” or personhood. And this is where the “pro-choice” argument runs out. Not in principle, if on the right side of a line (which may admittedly be to an extent arbitrary), but in absolutist assertion.

The radical feminist argument only sees a woman. Her autonomy. Her right to choose. The “pro-life” argument only sees the killing of a human person without consequence. When the former asks the latter how they can call themselves “pro-life” when they don’t care about the lives of the unwanted babies, they fail to see that what they are concerned with is preventing a killing, not quality of life. When the latter call doctors who perform abortions “murderers”, they fail to see the absurdity of everything after fertilisation being considered a person, and how this can alter some moral priorities.

Let’s switch to another scenario where there is an unconscious, entirely dependent life. Someone on life support in a coma. This person has no choice, and their selfhood is nascent (though might, under the right conditions, awaken). This person, who is unconscious, dependent, and in no way able to survive without the “umbilical cord” of artificial life support, has no choice. They may indeed be a burden on someone else’s autonomy. Does their lack of choice and consciousness deprive them of personhood? Does it absolve the carers of responsibility? Does it give them the right to choose against the unconsciously vulnerable? To transfer not just agency, but essential worth?

These are the sort of moral questions that abortion may raise. It is not just a question of “a woman’s right to choose”, unless you consider every fetus to be entirely null in terms of personhood.

A tiny person, in a coma, on biological life support. Or not.

I have no intention of telling anybody what they should judge on the issue, but to pretend that it isn’t an issue, a question, is facile and disingenuous. When we seek to erase or bury these questions, we ultimately make it more difficult to determine where the ethical “line” is, because we are denying the existence of the line at all, any shades of grey, any messy, lifelike, inconvenient detail.

That doesn’t help us attain moral maturity.

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issues in Satanism

Why Not? by C. D. Batchelor 1919 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This post is in response to my friend Aleph’s excellent piece on his place in “the Satanic zeitgeist”.

There are many kinds of Satanists, and a number of different types of Satanism discernible nowadays, not to mention a near unlimited number of individual variations (given the minimalist individualism of Satanic philosophy), but it is good for us to look at what has grown, and where we find ourselves in it, 50 odd years on from the proper genesis of modern Satanism, courtesy of Anton LaVey. I consider modern Satanism to have antecedents (notably in Crowley’s Thelema from my point of view), but the emergence of a movement consciously self-identified as “Satanist” dates back to LaVey most clearly*. I look upon this as the emergence of a spiritual stream that actually goes deeper and broader than “what it says on the tin” of LaVey’s Church or Bible.

So without further ado, I’d like to look at Aleph’s points.

Egoism versus egotism versus Altruism

The distinction between egoism and egotism will be seen as academic by many, but I get that the former is a philosophy of self-interest taken as the basis of one’s moral compass, while egotism is the more pejorative or judgemental term, coming somewhere closer to “narcissism” and self-absorption. In this respect Satanism could be seen as an explicitly egoistic philosophy, but I have dealt before with my sense of the potential place of altruism within a Satanic life. We are complex, interdependent, social animals (no matter how selective we might get), and self-interest and a sense of higher or broader fulfilment are not mutually exclusive; there just isn’t a rule on it in Satanism, and you have to come to your own conclusions as to your values. Self-actualisation includes more than food, sex, power and survival, so I would in a sense recommend an intelligent and psychologically literate egoism.

Morality/ethics

I think one of the brilliant things about Satanism is the way it collapses the authority of all external morality (which is one of the reasons why Satanism is inappropriate for children, who need such external structure). What this means in practice is that you have to make enquiry into your own personal ethics. What is pretty incontrovertible for me is that ethical coherence forms a part of our self-actualisation needs, though as a Satanist it is for you to make the judgement on what is coherent and self-actualising. Aleph asks whether there could be an objective morality of any sort, and I think there is no moral form which is objectively true, but there may be moral or ethical principles which hold true for a great divergence of circumstances, and the more this is so, the more basic the principle would be, and the more self-evident and neutral. It is a bit like the question of “rights”, which though it forms a powerful piece of “mental technology”, is in fact a fabrication in any natural terms. As an animal you have no rights, but to survive if you and your circumstances allow. That’s it. But ethics comes into the field of higher self-actualisation and value, and it is good to look into not “good and evil”, but what “the good” means to you. I think it was Aleister Crowley that said that you could look into good and evil and see that they didn’t truly exist, but to act as if  they didn’t exist in practice would ultimately  be degrading for the person themselves. I think it is best to say that morality is subjective and relative, but that ethics is an ongoing enquiry of enormous importance to the individual.

Self-preservation vs self-transformation

It is quite true that an unhealthy attachment to preserving one’s own status quo can form a block to growth and transformation, but on the other hand, transformation needs a stable base upon which to work, growth requires a healthy prior stage to grown from.

Self-preservation and self-transformation are actually complementary processes, though there comes a time when preservation must give way to a kind of death and rebirth to allow growth (as in the end of childhood), and where transformation must slow to bring about a stable new state; not a stagnant one, simply a vigorous and strong one. These are actually alterations in the ratios of ever present factors, for no living stability is based upon actual stasis, and no transformation is without limits and essential tendencies towards form,  if it is to be meaningful.

Aleph here discusses the differences between Satanism and Luciferianism thus: “Satanism is the philosophy that places emphasis on self-preservation, while Luciferianism talks about self-transformation”. But I would replace “self-preservation” with “self-actualisation” as the more integral emphasis of Satanic philosophy, as this is implicit in it, and a better description of a lived life. This of course includes self-preservation as one of its most basic requirements.

I very much agree with the quote attributed by Aleph to Lilith Aquino:

“Glorification of the ego is not enough; it is the COMPLETE psyche, the entire Self or soul, which must be recognized, appreciated, and actualized”

Indeed, it is this sense of the complete psyche and its actualisation that is strongly represented in Thelema with its sense of the True Will, and I feel is implicit within Satanism, though some might deny it.

God and the gods

If there is one area where I have diverged markedly from LaVey’s Satanism it is in being a polytheist, though I would consider agnosticism to be the default optimal position for Satanism, as the truth is we know little, if anything, once we ask and ask and ask of ourselves what it is we mean. Don’t even get me started on how overrated I find the hip new atheism. I was an atheist when I was 14, and it was amazingly cool for me in 1973, but I’m very bored with the “does God exist?” contention.

I consider all kinds of things to exist beyond sensory testing, and if I’m wrong, well it’s been a wild trip. Whether gods and spirits do or do not exist, the universe behaves as if they do for the purposes of magic. If you wish to plug into psychological archetypes or symbols as a way of communicating with or manipulating the forces of both the mind and of Nature, you will get way further, way quicker by sincerely treating those things as real and independent. Further, I’m of the generation of occultists that found no necessary contradiction between a reality being both entity and psychological symbolic reality of force, or indeed intermediate between these perceived states. When it comes to both being and reality, we generally have but one toe dipped in that sea. You won’t swim by deliberating if wetness is real or symbolic.

Hedonism vs eudaimonism

Hedonism: “living and behaving in ways that mean you get as much pleasure out of life as possible, according to the belief that the most important thing in life is to enjoy yourself

Cambridge dictionary

Eudaimonism: “a moral philosophy that defines right action as that which leads to the “well-being” of the individual, thus holding “well-being” as having essential value”

The Basics of Philosophy

Further re hedonism:

All hedonistic theories identify pleasure and pain as the only important elements of whatever phenomena they are designed to describe. 

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Satanism has generally been described as hedonistic, and this may hold in appearance, though even hedonism involves more than physical gratification. Satanism also acknowledges that pleasure and pain are complex experiences that can well wear each others clothes. Satanism generally values pleasurable indulgence, but pleasure can be physical, emotional, mental, and at the level of experience of meaning (and whatever else the human spirit might discover). While Satanism tends to be quite reductive in its value system if you follow LaVey’s “Bible” rigidly, even there it attempts to trace out a limit to pleasures, based upon competing pleasures and their consequences. While this is a little two-dimensional, it is pointing to an intrinsically self-balancing experiential process which has as its implicit goal the pursuance of individual well-being.

What Satanism  doesn’t do is prescribe right action, as that is up to the individual to discover and determine. An action that didn’t lead to your own well-being (ultimately) would be seen not as “wrong”, but as unsuccessful.

Where I find hedonism (in its unrefined forms) substandard is in seemingly missing the value of things like hardship and suffering, in personal development and the gaining of strengths, and what I can only term the development of individual virtues. Discrimination is required, but I see nothing un-satanic about the concept of individual virtue, so long as it is individually arrived at. This does not suggest that suffering should not be avoided, it should where it is meaningless and unworthwhile. But the experience of personally unavoidable suffering, given the complexity of our natures, and the drive for self-actualisation, is something which needs to be honestly engaged with.

Satanism seeks refinement, honesty and subtlety, as well as pleasure, but it will never be a collective morality.

Revenge

“Lex talionis” (the “law of retaliation”, “an eye for an eye” etc) is bandied about quite a bit among modern Satanists, in distinction to “turning the other cheek” or trying to understand your enemies, and I think there are severe limitations to this, though it needs to be put into context.

The literal sense of punching someone for punching you, shooting someone for shooting you, stealing from someone for stealing from you, abusing someone for abusing you, is really not what this is about. What it is saying is the malice of others can expect a response (if that is worthwhile for you, and what you genuinely want) and revenge is not necessarily bad. Sometimes it is meant to hurt. There is no virtue in tolerating crap, not in itself. But it needs to be pointed out that nothing in Satanism will turn out well if it is done unintelligently,  because Satanism is like life. Satanism offers no rule book, only tools for enquiry into self and life.

Again here, we have to look into the question of individual well-being. If you get into a feud that drags your life down, or adversely affects you or your loved ones, then you have acted unskilfully. Fighting back stupidly, or seeking revenge unintelligently, is not Satanic. Letting something go can be entirely more freeing sometimes, and there is nothing wrong with taking the better option for yourself and your loved ones.

Further more, something that really needs to be considered, is that if you need to seek revenge or redress more than as an aberrant occurrence, why are you putting yourself in that situation, and wouldn’t it show more mastery to choose or make a better environment, and better company? Satanists know that peace is built upon strength, so incessant battle in your life is more a sign of weakness, unless it is battle that you enjoy and find well-being in of course, in which case you need to find the right partners for your sport.

Again, one comes to the consideration of well-being and intelligence. I think revenge is overplayed in LaVey’s Satanism, which was in part acting as a stimulating antagonist to both Christianity and the hippie movement of the time. It should not be turned into more than common sense on the whole.

Conclusion

I view Satanism as a modern spiritual current, similar in many ways to the 93 current of Thelema. I view it as having emerged into wider self-consciousness through Anton LaVey’s work, though it is as much a proliferation of his bastard children as it is of his atheistic Church of Satan creed. There may be other elements feeding into this, indeed there are, from Thelema (especially its Typhonian recension), demonology and demonolatry, myth and folklore, the paranormal, decadent and gothic art and literature, and the ripe field of 19th century French occultism. I would add the influence of Austin Osman Spare and Rosaleen Norton for myself. In any case, what we have is a current that has emerged organically, rather than dogmatically. Or you could say it has emerged from the psyche, rather than just theory and teaching (even though it takes in its own forms of the latter).

LaVey’s work has inducted this current in its modern form, even though he seemed at pains to disguise his subtlety and contradiction in a delightful pulp style, and deny the depth of the subject at times. But I do not believe things happen on such a surface level, without currents stirring in the depths of the world of the psyche. He would laugh at that I am sure, and I would smile.

I advise people interested in Satanism to follow their instincts and intuition to find out what has attracted them to this area. Don’t get too hung up on what some will say is the doctrine of Satanism, for the philosophy is so simple, so irreducible, that it is a solvent that cannot be contained in any bottle, no matter how labelled.

* Obviously imaginatively, spiritually and in a literary and artistic sense you could trace all manner of things back into the more distant past.

a Pagan home for everyone

Paganism has grown and developed over time to accommodate groups large and small, with particular interests and wants, often as a countercultural movement, sometimes “progressive” or modernizing and sometimes “conservative”, sometimes a mixture of the two, but rarely with the need to actually be a representative, accessible, equable religion for all people. And as people’s religion we may have had some aspirations and claims, and real work from some, but in a lot of cases we are relatively untested and under-challenged.

I do feel this is the nature of a unique and diverse beast that has grown rather than been designed, and that needs to be understood, but there’s two questions came out of it for me:

1) what form does a real people’s religion take, ie one that seeks to serve the people as a whole, and be accessible to all, and not disadvantage any person or group, whether they are male, female, intersex, transexxed, of any gender (and not just binary), hetero, bi, gay, lesbian, queer, asexual, of any race, age, or form of physical ability, fertile or infertile, poor or rich, etc etc. Not so much thinking here about a battery of “equality and diversity” provisos, but what form does such a religion take, in terms of the inward stuff of religion? And further, because Paganism is such a diverse collection of quite particular religions or religious forms, how would that inclusiveness reflect on all our constituent parts? Because truthfully, if any religion as a whole excludes part of the people, does it deserve the title “religion”, or is it a specialized cult? I don’t think the term “cult” need be derogatory here if it is entirely conscious and recognizes the admission of limitation and specialization involved, but I don’t believe we should claim the term “religion” if we use it to turn our backs on part of humanity, and I don’t believe spirituality can truly have exclusion clauses. Similarly, I would question if some mainstream “religions” actually qualify for the term under this definition.

2) I appreciate the need for specialized cults, I feel the need for them myself in many ways, certainly I have no intention of my family religion being other than what suits me and my husband and our gods. But in a religious world made up of so many cults, what responsibility do we have towards the whole?

How can we reconcile so many specialized cults with a more inclusive status as religion open to all, and serving all. Is this not where “Paganism” actually comes in? We often say that Paganism is an “umbrella term” covering the great diversity within the religions of modern Paganism, but does this umbrella actually offer wholeness and acceptance to all, or just a convenient label with little but fragmented special interests behind it? I think this is important, because we need to look after people and offer them a spiritual home.

I feel we need to look at how people are excluded from our community, and what excludes them, not in order to make one universal form, but in order to engage in the work of alleviating suffering, and bring about the real fulfilment of lives. Because we might talk about “unity in diversity”, but there still needs to be some kind of union in there somewhere, and if this is any kind of spiritual unity in diversity, then there needs to be a moral aspect to it.

One of the things I heard repeated a few times in the wake of the “Lilith-gate” transphobia controversy, was that trans-folk should simply form their own groups, and surely that would be best for them? Which is an astonishing sentiment frankly, tantamount to telling them that they should just go away and disappear. Like a tiny, scattered, disempowered minority compared to cis-women and men can easily do that, and benefit from finding themselves excluded once again. No, that’s acting like a bunch of self-serving cults, and to assert that would be a moral failure I feel. I think we need to stop feeling so entitled as cults, and be serious about a wider and more compassionate vision.

I understand the need to have all manner of specialized forms, practices, liturgies, iconographies and functions. I feel that need myself, though as part of “eclectic Paganism” with what is basically a personal, family religion, I have it very easy. But we seem to circle round that “umbrella term”, keeping it carefully empty, while we look after ourselves and our own. We close the door on it and avoid the question that lies there. Can we not look deeper and broader, and get our feet collectively wet in universal ethical concerns for our fellow human beings?

"Enso" - calligraphy by Kanjuro Shibata XX - used under creative commons 3.0 license