Religion As Illusion

The following essay was originally published as a forward in a limited edition hardcover publication of ‘The Last Illusion’ by Clive Barker

By Lucien Greaves

A stage magician, openly engaging in trickery, often masters an endless repertoire of precision sleights and deft misdirections only to be relegated to street busking or scrounging for tableside tips. The hustler, however, comfortable in the presence of the hopelessly gullible, can merely learn to poorly half-ass his/her way through one cheap trick, yet yield a cult of devoted followers willing to spill their life savings into an empty promise of salvation.

Scam mediums, grifter gurus, fraudulent faith healers, all retain a profitable market of those who care little — and are often openly hostile towards — the debunkings suffered by their false messiahs. “Psychics” — even those amongst the most sought — are often laughable in their feeble cold readings, which are nonetheless sufficient to fleece the willing rube.

Indeed, water-into-wine is well within the domain of amateur stage magic, making the history of illusion a potentially troubling topic for the religious supernaturalist. How many religious movements were predicated on exasperatingly simple stage sleights, concealed gimmicks, confusing misdirections?

The “honest” magician sells entertainment, claiming no supernatural command over unknown forces. They, like Clive Barker’s symbolic character, Swann, in The Last Illusion, might prefer the title of “Illusionist” over “magician.” Just the same, some observers will suspect (just as some will suspect trickery on the part of the mystic) that the magician harbors secret powers merely explained away as “illusion.” As an accomplished mentalist once observed, it makes little sense to raise the ire of debunkers and skeptics when baffled observers will interpret the illusion as reality despite any disclaimers given anyway.

Historical records related to the origins of religious movements are often unclear, and of little relevance to the true believer anyway. “Certainly it matters not in the least if water can be made into wine, or Lazarus to live another year,” Swann’s loyal servant, Valentin, proclaims, and as far as faith is concerned, that’s usually true. The longevity of religious movements — the community, culture, and values that cohere them — are taken as evidence by their believers for the truth in their foundational superstitious claims. Or, perhaps, it becomes obligatory to believe in the unbelievable for fear that the values and community otherwise could never be sustained. Belief in the face of discrediting evidence is elevated to the virtue of Faith. Charlatans defame skeptics and evidence-seekers as a morally inferior breed, destructive to the social fabric.

Though Christ delivered teachings in parable, his followers today display little to no understanding of the power of metaphor, the potential for poetry to illuminate, the capacity for art to communicate deep, universal, atavistic truths. They must believe in the literal truth of a fictional tale in order for it to have any meaning at all. Religion, to them, is inconceivable without worship, without fealty to a master, without fear of an omnipotent autocrat. In the backward world of the superstitious mind, prestidigitation must be presented as actual magic in order for it be anything better than deception. The liar is the arbiter of ultimate truth, and the honest magician is nothing more than a deceitful clown. Servility to a lie is described as liberation in the Truth.

Naturally, then, it is the Devil’s game to confer actual supernatural powers — “The ability to perform miracles. To transform matter. To bewitch souls. Even to drive out God.” — upon Swann, a master of prestidigitation, turning him into the precise reverse of a religious prophet: a practitioner of real magic claiming to merely employ trickery for entertainment and profit. Satan, as is his want, turns the whole narrative backward.

Or, was it that the Devil instead conferred upon Swann the power to perform illusions so convincing that belief in their reality was absolute to the observer? After all, Harry, our protagonist, finds Swann’s would-be mistress, after having suffered the experience of being eaten by a tiger, alive, cloistered away in her apartment:

“Swann’s dead.”

At least she wasn’t, Harry thought. Whatever forces had snatched Valentin away,

they had not yet reached this corner of Manhattan. “May I talk to you?” he requested.

“No,” she replied. Her voice was a candle flame on the verge of extinction.

“I’m in the tiger’s belly,” the slow reply came, “and it doesn’t want me to let you in.”

The illusion remains unbroken, even when faced with its impossibility.

“How can you hear me,” she wondered, “when I’m in the tiger? Are you in the tiger too?”

“Maybe I am,” he said, not wanting to analyze the metaphor too closely.

Trapped in this “metaphor”, her suffering is all too real, and there is hardly a point in trying to convince her of its illusory nature. So it is with the delusions of the paranoid, and the deeply-held convictions of the religious fanatic. No amount of evidence will dissuade either, and their suffering and/or ecstasies could hardly be any different if grounded in objective reality. Illusion or not, the outcome is the same. Whether there was ever a literal tiger present in the theater at all is an issue that is never resolved.

With or without exploiting the Devil’s “gift” to him, some would naturally suspect Swann’s illusions to be supernatural anyway, setting him apart from any other stage magician in no significant way. As Valentin — Swann’s loyal servant — notes, Miracles are useless. Magic is a distraction from the real concerns. It’s rhetoric. Melodrama. Announcing his power could only serve to move Swann from suspected sorcerer to suspected charlatan. From an entertainer providing reprieve from the everyday, to a cult leader from which believers seek a master in a nascent religion. All that would change is the audience — from thinkers to the faithful — and the change would be undoubtedly for the worse.

Faith, always fragile and unfounded, is in need of defenders to preserve the illusion; apologists for whom the need to propagate belief, sans evidence, is the very foundation of the activities surrounding their “higher calling.” Superstitious religious practice focuses primarily on re-affirming and cultivating beliefs that are difficult to maintain without a suppression of intellectual shame and fantastical contortions of reason. As any huckster knows, the rube wants to be fooled. Established religions (as opposed to start-up cults) sell the illusion of the supernatural without even practicing the art of magic. When the performers — the priests and propagators — are as fooled as their audience, the religion is then typically considered authentic.

Digital Photo File Name: DT5476.tif
Online Publications Edited By Steven Paneccasio for TOAH 12-18-2015

Facile speculations typically explore what might become of the nonbelievers should an undeniably evident miracle occur. The more interesting question, perhaps, is what might become of the believers if their faith were suddenly no longer necessary, and the basis for their belief were to be rendered self-evident by way of indisputable proof.

When the need to cultivate faith is nullified by absolute proof of an angry God, all that’s left of the religion is the groveling servility. No more sense of empowerment could be derived from imposing faith upon stubborn non-believers. If critical thinking were to become antiquated by Natural Lawlessness, all that would remain is the fear of offending an ineffable tyrant, the fear of eternal suffering unknowable to the mortal intellect. However, absolute proof of supernatural power is not necessarily proof of a particular god, and regardless of his words, many might well wonder from where Swann’s power was truly derived. What good is real magic when one might be burned at a stake for sorcery as easily as one might be worshipped by groveling, mindless minions at the altar as a god? Which fate is worse? As is perceptively pointed out by Valentin, the Devil’s gift to Swann is of no real value, and Swann is left with little real choice in how to use his abilities.

The real power resides in a “miracle’s” presentation. The power is in what the audience believes about the “magic”, and where they place its practice upon the moral spectrum. The magic must contain a religious philosophy, and the basic believing rube is deluded into concluding the reverse is true: a religious philosophy equally needs magic in order to be considered valid.

Beliefs, independent of facts, have rallied movements; instigated wars; defined blind, brutal tribal loyalties, and have provoked savage outgroup purgings. Supernaturalist religions have sold rhetoric, melodrama, and cheap sleights as miracles to willing rubes from whom they demand unquestioning fealty. Religions have been founded by the scam mediums, grifter gurus, and fraudulent faith healers.

What does it matter whether water was turned to wine, or if Lazarus was made to live another year? Do these fairly petty acts of omniscient power validate the tribal enthusiasms, the sense of community identity, held by the Christian? Would the absolute debunkings of these “miracles” take any of that away? A lack in the belief in the magic and miracles of any supernaturalist religion strips it first of its Faith, leaving it to be judged for its real-world value, it’s apparent morality, without deference to the exonerating excuses of “mysterious ways” or an ineffable divine will. Could traditional religious institutions survive on their merits today without the illusion of celestial license?

Satanism, as defined by The Satanic Temple (which I co-founded and act as spokesperson for), however, is an atheistic religion, rejecting supernatural miracles in favor of what is provable by way of empirical evidence. In this way, Satanism is like the “honest” magician, inviting the audience to enjoy the experience of a religion without asking them to compromise or insult their intelligence. The “performance” is for the audience. It empowers them. It is not a bludgeon by which they are imbued with fear of the unknown, and coerced into fearful subservience.

Satanism suggests a complete overturning of the values, symbols, and rituals, of Christian faith. Legends tell of rites spoken backward, texts written in reverse, bizarre congregations meeting in secret chambers adorned with inverted crucifixes. As recently as the late 20th century, medieval-minded witch-hunters scrutinized popular music recordings imagining that they could discern backward Satanic messages imposing their subliminal influence on impressionable minds. But if the superstitious faithful have come to surrender themselves to irrationality and ignorance, the inversion is self-determination and free inquiry. In a culture where symbols of presumed virtue stand as surrogates for actual virtue, where hollow rote acts of worship serve to provide moral self-licensing for the behaviors of the irreparably depraved, the adversarial inversion becomes the position of the humanistic conscientious objector, rather than the conspiracy of an anti-human cult of Supreme Evil.

While the clerical-collared emissaries of God have exhibited an undeniable proclivity toward child rape, The Satanic Temple fights legal battles to end corporal punishment in schools. While the cross is invoked to justify the withholding of basic rights from homosexuals and the transgendered, Satanists fight for a level legal landscape respecting plurality and individual autonomy. While the Religious Right fights to impose their faith exclusively upon every public forum, Satanists are on the frontline of preserving Government neutrality and a separation of Church and State.

While the inversions are obvious, the theocratic faithful derive false conclusions obviously seen through the guilty distortion of a black mirror. Utterly blinded to the reality of their surroundings — hypnotically absorbed in the illusion of their righteousness — they fail to perceive their own depravities. Like common criminals blaming the Devil for their own disgraceful deeds, the faithful externalize their own corruptions upon those who resist their foul designs. Sometimes, the obviousness of this projection reaches levels of satirical absurdity: Priestly “experts” in “Ritual Abuse” seeking to uncover non-existent paedophilic Satanic cults; The theocrat’s hysteria that a Satanic conspiracy seeks to dominate public affairs. Shock-peddling pundits belittling Satanic activities as mere attention-seeking; Fear-mongering politicians decrying The Satanic Temple’s political theatrics.

Mention of Satanism in a predominantly Christian society conjures hysterical fears of an anti-human conspiracy of evil. In assuming their failed Messiah to be the author of all that is moral, Just and Good, the Adversary could be nothing if not unjust and wantonly cruel. There is no room in this narrative for the Satan of literary romanticism; a rebel against absolute tyranny seeking knowledge and autonomy, even in the face of eternal banishment from Heaven’s perfection. To strip away the illusion of religion, to recognize the sham messiahs as common conjurers, is to preference Hell over a false Heaven; “Heaven” being a comforting promise of eternal happiness in exchange for lifelong servility.

Satanism, the superstitious mind fears, threatens to completely undermine the sanctity of Abrahamic religious faith and exceptionalism. It leers ominously from the shadows, presaging a complete overturn of traditional understandings of morality and societal norms. Satan represents the opposite of their allegedly benevolent deity, and the Christian cannot consider any virtues exist within Satan without being forced to confront that flaws might exist in their Lord. The idea of non-theistic Satanism, however, adds an element of confusion. If one doesn’t believe in a literal Satan, what business has one being a Satanist? If one doesn’t believe in supernatural powers, what business has one performing magic? How can one enjoy the performance if none of it is “real”? It is all but a bald farce, it is assumed, mere entertainment.

…And yet, here we are, threatening to completely undermine the sanctity of Abrahamic religious faith and exceptionalism; leering ominously from the shadows, increasingly stepping forward, presaging a complete overturn of traditional understandings of morality and societal norms. Nor are our beliefs and values in any way diminished for our refusal to uphold the religious illusion.

To ask why the Satanist would “chose” to identify with the Satanic even while not practicing belief in a personal Satan — after all, wouldn’t choosing some other mythic character be less offensive to the tender sensibilities of the Christian population? — is about as refined as suggesting that Milton could have chosen a different protagonist for Paradise Lost and still have produced as meaningful and effective work of literary art. As far as culturally relevant artistic raw material is concerned, nothing comes close to Satan as a symbol for rebellion against imposed, arbitrary norms; a metaphor for total liberation from the tyrannical. The power of blasphemy can be perilously similar for believers and non-believers alike. Inverted crosses and pentagrams, taboo rituals, the Satanic aesthetic and ethics, are declarations of personal independence from oppressive superstitions and frivolous traditional norms. Illusion or not, the outcome is the same.

Seeking representation in public forums, The Satanic Temple has, at times, offered to deliver invocations preceding City Council meetings where prayers routinely demarcate the beginning of formal proceedings. The response from the Christian Right has been universally deranged and revealing. In Phoenix, Arizona, the City Council scrambled to cohere a pretext by which they could deny us our free speech, despite the clear unconstitutionality in doing so. One particularly unsophisticated Councilman argued, oblivious to the irony, that we didn’t deserve a forum because our intentions were, in fact, to censor religious speech. In true Satanic fashion, we turn the whole narrative backward, but in doing so we make obvious that the world had already been operating in reverse.

Similar uproar has followed in various States as we’ve asserted ourselves in supposedly “open” forums where the assumption was clearly that Christian primacy would never be challenged. In Oklahoma, we offered a Satanic monument to complement and contrast the Decalogue on the Statehouse grounds. In public school districts where evangelical materials were being made available for “passive distribution” to students, we asked to distribute Satanic activity books. Where there have been religious holiday displays on public grounds, we’ve offered displays of seasonal Satanic well-wishing. Throughout it all, a confused hysteria followed as flustered pundits rejected any claims to our legitimacy. Non-theistic religion, they fulminate, is an oxymoron. Can there truly be any moral or ethical guidance for those who don’t believe their creed is enforced by a heavenly overlord? Can a cultural identity be constructed around “mere” metaphor? Are symbols meaningful without magic? In bewilderment, these detractors find that their refusal to recognize our legitimacy doesn’t reduce the power of our symbols, the gravity of our actions. Trapped in a metaphor, they struggle desperately to understand by what magic they arrived in the belly of this villainous tiger. Some suspect that the magicians responsible only claim to be manipulating the material while employing supernatural methods in secret. Conspiracy theories abound that our claims to atheism are, in fact, mere cover-up. They are seeing the Devil’s work in our actions with their own eyes, and to acknowledge that it can be done without a literal Devil again implies the reverse: that their own community, ethics, and identity is just as independent of a personal deity as well. The honest magician reveals that the “miracle” can be performed by material means.

In a world of faith-built-on-fraud, the honest magician is seen as an open deceiver. In The Last Illusion, Satan introduces supernatural magic into the illusionist’s repertoire revealing that such powers are not only unnecessary and unneeded, but unwanted as well. It’s a lesson well worth learning, for once we can remedy ourselves of the fear of an omniscient tyrant, once we can live our brief lives in the here-and-now without concern for what comes after — maybe then we can begin to see the magic in the everyday.

There was precious little of the magician left once the fire had done its work, and nothing that vaguely resembled a man.

Things came and went away; that was a kind of magic. And in between? Pursuits and conjurings, horrors, guises. The occasional joy.

That there was room for joy, ah! that was magic too.

For too long, the venal and nefarious have hidden behind an illusion of divine authority, supernatural sanction, and moral supremacy. The Lie is that the heretics, the blasphemers, and the unsilenced inquirers serve to mislead from the truth.

The lie is that we need to believe in the illusion to see the magic.