by Soror Falcon
Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO) is unquestionably the biggest, the most well-known, and the most recognizable organization dedicated to Aleister Crowley’s magical system (or philosophy) of Thelema. Crowley has been an almost mythical figure, appearing throughout pop culture since his death from being on the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album to Ozzy Osbourne singing “Mr. Crowley” (albeit with incorrect pronunciation, of course).
That all being established, it is strange to know that OTO is stagnant and has not truly grown. Back in the “good old days” (when there were even fewer rules, more drugs, and – believe it or not – even more drama) of the 1990’s, there were lodges that were more active than the busiest lodges around today. With all that history of OTO going back to 1913 or so, and with all the pop culture around Crowley and OTO (although most of it is Illuminati-type conspiracy mongering), one might wonder why OTO is not more popular.
I think there are innumerable reasons that OTO is not only at fault for their lack of growth, but are essentially doomed to failure. I dont think OTO will ever disappear: it will likely continue to sputter and dwindle, having little bursts of interest amidst the long and drawn-out slow death. In this way, it is doomed to never grow in significant ways, either in terms of membership or in terms of developing the system and structure of OTO.
When I speak about these reasons that OTO is doomed, I speak as someone who has dedicated around 15 years of my life to the organization in various ways, at various levels, and have strongly personally wanted to see it develop into its full potential. Unfortunately I think that is now essentially impossible for various reasons that I will discuss. Some of these reasons are structural: they are permanent features of OTO unless it completely re-organizes. Other reasons are not permanent but likely unchanging due the personalities currently in power.
For those still in OTO, waiting for the slightest justification to dismiss this article due to being “anti-OTO” or “just bitter” or something like that: this article is actually meant with the members of OTO in mind. I want people joining and part of OTO to be fully aware of what organization they are a part of. And more importantly: If there are people with persistence greater than mine, who still remain in OTO and want to make it a better place, then I give my blessings to you. These reasons OTO is doomed should be part of a healthy contemplation of how the organization can be made better. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to happen due to one of our first reasons…
1) Dissent is not tolerated
This probably seems ridiculous to say to many OTO members, due to the fact that nominally OTO is in favor of freedom in general, especially freedom of speech. However, in practice, this is not true. The problem is that it is done in subtle ways that are not so obvious as an overt threat of punishment for dissenting opinions.
The truth is that the social life of OTO is not invulnerable to the various pitfalls of tribalism that are inherent in human psychology and sociology. People even in small groups immediately divide themselves into in-group and out-group, and find anything challenging the in-group’s social cohesion to be a threat. In this way, even mild and well-intentioned criticism is met with social consequences that reinforce the idea that dissent is not wanted or tolerated. If you express dissent with local issues, you may find yourself frozen out of important roles for events. If you express dissent with regional or national issues, you may find yourself not invited to any of the degrees beyond Man of Earth. It is so well known that there is even a term for what happens after you say something negative – you get “the call”. Someone in authority will call you or ask to meet with you and essentially make your life a bit more difficult for having spoken up.
Luckily, this is a theoretically fix-able problem… but it would require strong, intelligent, informed leadership guided by principles that are transcendent, like spreading Thelema, rather than simply avoiding conflict or making things appear “okay”. This is unlikely to happen because…
2) The leadership is the same old white dudes from 30 years ago
I have nothing against old people, white people, or dudes but come on. The same calcified leadership is in place, and not because they’ve done such a great job. If OTO is supposed to be a vanguard of Thelema of sorts, then you will not simply need new and fresh ideas but also youthful virility, vision, and persistence. There is no diversity of opinion and – believe it or not – Crowley had some choice words to say about uniformity.
Older people tend toward conservatism in the sense that they tend to seek homeostasis, security, consistency, and safety. This also creates a tendency toward not being willing to self-examine, to reform, and especially not likely to make large structural changes to anything. In this way, there are no new and bold ideas in OTO. In fact, I’d surmise they’re about 30 to 40 years behind the curve in terms of adapting to new trends in religion, technology, and organizing. When one person was asked how they might increase OTO’s web presence, someone in all seriousness suggested a webring. A webring. Most of you probably dont even remember them. There are adults writing about Thelema now who were not born before the last webring died. That person should in all seriousness have been laughed out of the room, but it is simply symptomatic of the behind-the-times approach OTO has to everything. And the structure of OTO reinforces this problem: You can only go up in degrees, you can never go back, you can never be “fired” from being a VII* after being made a VII*. It therefore is largely a measure of how long you have been in the Order (and not caused any kerfuffles or annoyed any of the wrong people) rather than a form of meritocracy that people have earned. This is all exacerbated by the fact that….
3) OTO has no vision for itself
I am fully aware there are founding documents and even vision and values statements from the United States brethren. Still, I do not think that modern OTO has figured out what exactly it is fundamentally. There diametrically opposite views of what OTO is and should be from people in positions of great authority in OTO. The differences tend to be regional but it still speaks to an internal conflict within OTO: What exactly is OTO? Is it a fraternal order dedicated to social and political purposes such as increasing freedom in society? Or is it a secret society meant for the few and the elite, not to be known or understood by the masses?
Part of the problem is that OTO has largely dropped the pretense of following what is known as the “Blue Equinox” model (because it is based on a model of OTO described in documents that were in a volume of The Equinox that had a blue cover). The Blue Equinox documents are primarily Liber 52, 101, and 194, and are proudly hosted on USGL’s web library with a length note from Sabazius (head of US OTO) explaining all the many ways that the Blue Equinox model is not only not adopted but never will be. This is for various reasons, theoretically including that maintaining 501c3 status within the US would not allow for several provisions in relation to property, for example. But the entire spirit of the Blue Equinox is not part of the general purpose of OTO. Half the people want OTO to grow and be a social-political force, or some kind of Thelemic community center at least, and the other half resent this effort because they want it to be their secret club. There is no greater clarity when listening to leadership. No real efforts are made to do much other than further expand and amplify OTO’s internal bureaucratic structure into further complexity.
A lot of these problems are tied together in my opinion: The lack of vision makes people all the more likely to create interpersonal drama and perform social triangulations, and so on. In an organization like OTO, you need a unifying transcendent goal that binds people of different qualities together into a single purpose – it’s almost like some of that stuff is inherent in the teachings of OTO itself but is summarily ignored. So a lack of vision leads to tribalism, and the leadership is too tired to recognize the issue let alone do anything about it.
4) A complete and total lack of transparency
Members of OTO like to slap each other on the back and congratulate each other for conforming to the complex and opaque bureaucratic systems of OTO that are at least nominally there to improve the organization. Systems like the Grand Tribunal or the Path of Mediation to resolve interpersonal conflicts in the United States are confusing and opaque – ask any two OTO members how you might get an issue before the Grand Tribunal, and you will probably get two shrugs. Reporting bad behavior in general is opaque: There is no justification given for many rulings, simply a ruling handed down. There are appeals but it is like sending it back into the same black hole. People say “trust the system” or other trite clichés like “the justice of OTO grinds slow but true”, but that is frankly not true. There are innumerable cases of injustice done to members by the opaque bureaucracy of OTO: you would not hear from many of these people at OTO events because they are simply not going to hang around an organization they see as having betrayed them.
There is also a clear benefit to ingratiating yourself with people who hold social capital in OTO. People who are friends with Bishops, Kings, and other important authorities within OTO will almost inherently get preferential treatment. There are so many cases of this that surely people reading this will immediately think of one or two. This is inherent in human psychology: preferring your in-group is natural, but OTO should be better. OTO should theoretically create initiates who are of higher spiritual and moral quality than the average person off the street. But unfortunately this kind of nepotistic favoritism goes hand in hand with the opaque nature of decision making in OTO.
5) The whole weird sex magick thing at the center
Many people (in my opinion, rightfully) look down upon Scientology for their bait and switch tactics. They draw people in with “classes” about general subjects, like organizing your life, improving your mental abilities, or obtaining basic skills for life. At some point, Scientology takes a hard left turn and then appears Xenu, a billion year old alien who steals souls. This Xenu mythology is central to the higher degrees of Scientology but many people in the lower, local areas do not know about it. This is an exact parallel to OTO in many ways: The local bodies put on various generic events about occultism and Thelema but, at a certain point in OTO, you realize the central secret is a sex magick secret. It is not entirely secret anymore, of course. This secret involves, to some extent or another, consuming one’s own and your partner’s sexual fluids. “Come for the sigil-making classes, stay for the consumption of sexual fluids!” It’s not the catchiest slogan in the world. Frankly, it is a bit of a poison pill, in my opinion.
This is not something that can be extracted from OTO. You cannot turn OTO into another Freemasonry 2.0 that just replaces ideas with Thelemic gods and Freemasonic virtues with Thelemic ones. You will always have this sex magick secret at its core. And the higher you go in OTO, the more people care about this secret. Really, many of the Hermits see OTO’s purpose as primarily safeguarding this secret, not doing anything in the world, or growing, or anything in the Blue Equinox. In this way, OTO’s lack of growth is to its own benefit. Were OTO to grow, it would gain public scrutiny and people would inevitably start asking questions why everyone is consuming sexual fluids in weird occult rituals.
And the odd thing is that many members at the “local body” level do not even know about this secret, or think it isnt as important as it is to OTO. This again speaks both to a lack of vision (is OTO really just supposed to be able safeguarding a sexual fluid consumption ritual?) and a lack of transparency.
6) OTO doesn’t offer its members much except to become managers to administer the system
There have been a few conversations online about this idea recently that OTO doesnt really teach much of anything. The classes OTO teaches are virtually all informal and created without oversight by the individual members. There is no structured teaching beyond the degree rituals themselves, which are informally understood to be able to be interpreted in any way you like. So at a certain point, you might find yourself asking what exactly do people “do” in OTO beyond just hanging out and talking about obscure trivia over some wine? In the US, most people “do Mass”. The repetitious performance of the same, single ritual every week or month. People get ordained just to do this one ritual, essentially. The only other option is to join the local body as an “officer” and suffer the tribulations of trying to run OTO as an organization.
There are no real overarching goals, no transcendent purposes, no big projects, no sense of mastery or progression except the slow time-sink of waiting for your next initiation (or invitation to the next degree). Importantly, there isn’t a whole lot of “Thelema” you can do except for the Mass. There are, if anything, committees. And many of us know that committees are where good ideas go to die (and where good people go to spiritually die). You can join the endless bureaucracy of administrative positions that have been generated so that you can do more Masses. There are no real ways to participate other than these things which, after a while, seem repetitious and hollow to many people. It is surely one of the many core reasons for attrition in OTO – there’s nothing for most people to do except show up and hang out.
7) Behind the times on gender, racism, and responding to sexual assault
Thelemic Union has several articles by multiple authors on these subjects so I wont go into depth but, needless to say, there have been some important controversies in the last few years in OTO. One issue is the gender essentialism at the core of OTO, leading to policies in the ecclesiastical arm EGC that non-binary people have to pick one gender or the other, basically. OTO has put itself into a position of trying to please everyone and ending up annoying everyone instead. OTO will have to think a little bit harder and deeper about the ramifications of accepting the idea that gender is a spectrum rather than a binary – even small things like the Committee of 4 being composed of 2 men and 2 women… So anyone identifying as non-binary is barred from such a position? I give this as just one example of how there are many unexamined repercussions for adopting certain positions… which is fine, but it appears OTO has not done any of this contemplation. It does not want to accept that non-binary people truly are non-binary, and so forces them into one or the other role with the Gnostic Mass, while also allowing for things that imply understanding non-binary individuals like calling oneself Sibling rather than Frater or Soror.
There have also been incidents of high-profile Thelemites engaging in racist behavior or support for overtly racist groups and organizations. The organization’s response to this was almost entirely opaque – no one would ever know if anything ever happened to the people saying racist stuff – except that, at least from the outside, OTO appeared to still support these people with headlining speaking engagements and putting their articles in books they were publishing. This is not simply being woke, it is holding oneself to a very basic (and honestly a low) moral standard. Same with OTO’s response to sexual assault. One recent case in the UK led to the King of UKGL OTO issuing a public decree that appeared to basically be telling everyone to shut up about it. I personally experienced several cases where people’s complaints about sexual harassment and assault were either ignored or ridiculed. The complaints were slow-rolled. They were made to feel bad, like they were burdening OTO members by telling them about being harassed or assaulted, like a cop who won’t listen to a report because it means doing paperwork. This is a morally untenable place to stand in relation to the bodily integrity and safety of members and guests. The opaqueness of OTO’s deliberative processes, combined with the fact that the people in charge are old white men, means that these policies are highly unlikely to change, let alone with the training to more likely prevent these things from happening in the future. The end result is that the demographics of OTO are, by and large, white and male. A bureaucratic diversity council of low degree members is tantamount to virtue signaling: a top-down organization requires change to come from the top, not simply adding to the already overly bloated bureaucracy of OTO by creating more committees.
Overall, I hope this has been interesting and informative to people. I write this out of concern for the future of OTO and its members. I certainly have my own anger and annoyances at having put so much time and effort into a system that seems irreparable to me now. I do think there is a great future for Thelema in other organizations, or in decentralized “cells” that might be far more creative and risk-taking than any kind of stodgy centralized organization we’ve seen so far. But I hope that, in some small way, this helps the health of OTO. Unfortunately, I think many of these points will be dismissed without consideration (on account of some of the issues listed above) but for those with earnest and genuine interest in the growth of Thelema and see OTO as part of your Will, then I believe considering these problems is necessary.
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