Consensus Thelema is hard to define. It is nebulous by nature. But it also tends to disguise itself as its opposite: lack of consensus, radical individualism, creative self-expression, iconoclasm, and an uncompromising advocacy of non-conformity. It’s like a force field that permeates the Thelemic community. It’s conspicuous when you run into it, but otherwise it’s invisible.
About two years ago I began collecting examples of it, many of which will be included in this article. The examples are anonymized for two reasons. First, the point of this article is to shed light on a set of imitated behaviors, not draw negative attention to any particular person. Secondly, there are cults of personality in Thelema. Certain individuals’ utterances are lauded, no matter how incoherent or banal, just as others’ are dismissed or attacked, no matter how commonsensical. By anonymizing the examples, I hope to draw people’s attention to the behaviors, not the person.
This list is not exhaustive, and not all the beliefs described are part of the essence of Consensus Thelema per se. (Some of them I even agree with to some extent.) More important than the beliefs themselves is how they are utilized to disarm opponents of the Consensus and shut down reflection and criticism. They are deployed as thought-terminating clichés.
What is a Thought-Terminating Cliché?
Thought-terminating clichés are the means by which the Thelemic Consensus is consciously or unconsciously maintained.
The language of the totalist environment is characterized by the thought-terminating cliché. The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized, and easily expressed. They become the start and finish of any ideological analysis.Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, Chapter 16, The Older Generation: Robert Chao (1961)
While I would not go so far as to describe Consensus Thelema as a form of totalism, the rhetorical use of thought-terminating clichés in the context of Consensus Thelema inoculates it against reflection and criticism. Here’s an example:
Person A presents a complex philosophical question: What follows from an existential framing of Thelema? Does that framing imply that true will is chosen?
Rather than answering the question, person B says they personally choose to inhabit a certain kind of universe in which true will is discovered. They reduce the complex problem to a sound-byte about their own personal preference. The complexity isn’t addressed so much as dismissed.
Further, almost no one truly believes they choose the universe they inhabit. We’re only too aware of the exigencies foisted upon us by a world in which a bat falls out of a tree in China and six months later people can’t be in the same room together for fear of someone dying. Utterances like “I choose to inhabit a universe with X, Y, or Z qualities” only make sense while playing a language game where opinions are expressed, not so much out of personal conviction, but rather as rhetorical performances.
Consensus Thelema often announces its presence with these kinds of thought-terminating clichés. The thought-terminating clichés are insidious, because they sound affirmative of individual freedom. For instance in the above example, the thought-terminating cliché is affirmative of person B’s freedom of choice. But regardless how great a cliché sounds, if it’s being used to erase complexity and terminate discussion, it’s still creating a closed system in which reflection is continually frustrated and conformity reinforced.
That term being introduced, let’s proceed to what I perceive to be the main beliefs constellating Consensus Thelema.
1. “Thelema” is subjective.
In and of itself, this is not a meaningful or helpful statement. From a certain perspective, isn’t everything subjective to some degree or another? But the more willing someone is to use this as a thought-terminating cliché, the more likely they are playing the Consensus Thelema game.
For instance a conversation will start about some particular matter-of-fact issue, but when one of the participants begins to feel as though they are losing too much ground in the disagreement, they will pull back from the more controversial claim and substitute a more easily defensible subjective statement about their own taste or preference. It’s an example of a motte-and-bailey fallacy.
Here are common forms it takes:
2. Only you can decide for yourself what “Thelema” is.
Common sense would dictate that one learns about Thelema as they would any other spirituality, religion, or philosophy: read up on it; if it sounds appealing, try putting it into practice; and measure one’s own results against others’, both contemporary and from the historical record. That’s how I approached Buddhism, and it made sense. Practicing Buddhism provided experiential data I couldn’t ever get from a book, but it’s not as though the experiences contradicted the facts themselves. The facts were useful for figuring out whether I was doing the thing properly or just stewing in my ego.
Thelema isn’t like that, at least not according to the Consensus. There are various versions of this, but they often revolve around the importance one assigns to the writings of Crowley.
A common belief among Consensus Thelemites is that all that’s required to be a Thelemite is to “accept” the Book of the Law. This criteria is vague enough that it does not even commit a person to any of the ideas expressed in the Book of the Law. For example the Book of the Law’s pronouncements on compassion are often explained away or ignored.
Crowley’s elaborations on Thelema as a philosophy, especially where they are at odds with the center of contemporary politics (more on that later), are also frequently dismissed as “just his opinions.” What’s rarely engaged with are the reasons he gave for the elaborations he provided.
As another example, we can also ignore why Crowley seemed to think Thelema was important to A∴A∴ and vice versa.
Contrary to common sense, all opinions in the matter of Thelema are apparently just expressions of preference or taste.
This rejection is also convenient in those cases where Crowley would have expected a more consistent discipline of practice from a person than such individuals expect from themselves. When people brag about “taking off the training wheels” and going “beyond” Crowley, the standard they want to replace Crowley’s with is usually easier to achieve than what Crowley was suggesting.
Some even go so far as to define Thelema abstracted from any relationship with the Book of the Law.
Closely related to this belief is:
3. Even if Crowley were some kind of authority on what Thelema is, he changed his mind on everything constantly anyway.
This is true to some extent. He did seem to change his mind about some things, and not all of them are trivial. For instance his views on the Holy Guardian Angel are all over the map.
On the other hand, people will exaggerate this variability and use it as a thought-terminating cliché when something Crowley said causes cognitive dissonance for them.
For example, a friend of mine is convinced that Valentinian Gnosticism is an important frame for understanding the Gnostic Mass. He believes the Priest and the Congregants are rejoining the Pleroma when they take communion. When I point out that Thelema is incompatible with the idea that we return to a Pleroma, he replies that Crowley changed his mind anyway on the Pleroma.
He didn’t. The claim is false. But even if he did, so what? What’s at issue is not whether Crowley said something. What’s at issue is whether, given his assumptions, Crowley was justified saying something. In other words, did he have good reason for it? And if we share his (or anyone’s) assumptions, then shouldn’t we share the conclusion? That seems pretty down-to-earth to me.
This is where one runs afoul of Consensus Thelema: not from putting forth some interpretation X of Thelema, but by pointing out that the adoption of X means interpretation Y must be wrong in some feature. This is the kind of cognitive dissonance a thought-terminating cliché is designed to guard against.
In other words you’re unlikely to run into trouble so long as you never think through the implication of an idea. That’s alienating for anyone who thinks. But if there are no implications for adopting a stance on life, is it real, or is it just a form of leisure?
4. Anyone arguing in the way I am now is a “Crowleyite”.
To believe the advocates of Consensus Thelema, you would think the Thelemic community is rife with droves of “Crowleyites”: drones who unquestionably accept everything Crowley said about anything and everything and who constantly bash other people over the head with it.
Meanwhile, drop into any group of Thelemites on or offline, and it’s far more common to find people climbing over one another to prove how independent they are from Crowley. It’s one thing to make fun of Crowley; he’s a big target. But there are harder tasks in the spiritual life than contradicting a dude who’s dead 74 years already.
5. You can only decide for yourself what “Thelema” is.
Right-wing Christians perennially experience moral panics. In the 80s it was death metal and Satanism. In the 90s it was child molestation in daycare. Now it’s this fucking shit with horse paste and microchips in vaccines. One could be forgiven for losing track.
The Consensus Thelema version of moral panic is that someone is going to establish a dogma.
The Consensus leans dramatically in the opposite direction, but it’s never enough. There’s still this mortal fear that somehow, some way, someone is going to “establish a dogma”.
What would that even mean in the context of Thelema? Most Thelemites aren’t even in organizations, let alone ones that could establish or enforce a dogma. Is O.T.O. going to establish one? O.T.O. has become stricter over the years about its ritual praxis, and they’re not shy about which A∴A∴ they think is really communicating with the Mothership. But as far as expecting anyone to teach or believe anything, I think there’s exactly zero precedent for that.
And even if after all this time they did start to expect that of people—so what? People would just leave O.T.O.—as they do all the time anyway. As long as the stance was principled, is it really that bad?
And yet three years ago, a Bishop in O.T.O. still felt the need to write an article in Agape insisting that E.G.C. clergy leave theological questions “unsystematic, unsettled, and diverse.”
How exactly would it be otherwise? How would theological questions suddenly become decided, not just for one person but for the whole organization, in a way that was systematic, settled, and uniform? What would be the mechanism that would bring that about?
Obviously the first step in that process would be someone saying, “X means Y, not Z.” But there have to be at least a dozen more steps between someone saying that and everyone in the organization being forced to believe and declare the same thing. Can someone at least tell me what the second step would be?
This is what I mean by a moral panic.
This isn’t just an O.T.O. panic. I wrote an article on the Gnostic Mass where I said, not even that some interpretation was wrong, but that some question was the wrong question to ask. It’s just a way of saying, “Maybe another avenue of inquiry would be more fruitful.”
Someone replied and told me I shouldn’t say that anyone’s interpretation is wrong, because everyone is entitled to their view.
That’s just a politically correct way of being intolerant. Many of the dogmas of Consensus Thelema are established through just this kind of doublespeak.
6. There are no Thelemic teachings per se.
It is written in the Book of the Law, “He must make suggestions; but he may make optional the ordeals.”
“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Recommendation.”
Consensus Thelema tends to divide into two branches. There are those who prefer a minimalist version, according to which the entire thing reduces to Do what thou wilt. Will is not want, but good luck figuring out what the fuck that even means. I think in a lot of cases it means either some very deep-seated set of preferences (maybe sexual identity or temperament), and maybe the long-term goals one forms on the basis of those preferences (e.g., “follow your bliss” or find a career you have “passion” for).
In other words will is want; it’s just stuff you want long-term.
Here’s an example of the minimalist framing weaponized into a thought-terminating cliché. It’s a person responding to someone asking a question on the Thelema subreddit.
“Stop.” The rest is condescending, but notice how they are literally terminating the conversation.
Note that it got 119 upvotes. I find that disturbing. I’ll show you the comments in a bit, but how many of them do you think were critical? How many people were willing to step out of line and challenge this?
Aside from the minimalists, there are the types who are obsessed with “connecting the dots” between things in Crowley’s writings/rituals and recondite shit in alchemy or Freemasonry. I’ve written about both.
Both approaches are subjective in orientation: there are no teachings per se; you just take out of it what you feel like taking. “Whatever works” is another favorite in the Consensus Thelemite arsenal of thought-terminating clichés.
Since there are no teachings, there’s nothing to master or build competence in.
There are plenty of practices to build competence in, and Consensus Thelemites are almost all pragmatists of one stripe or another. But most of the “Thelemic” practices come from other traditions. They’re modified versions of ceremonial magic, witchcraft, meditation, maybe “tantric” sex. But it’s unclear what the specifically Thelemic dimension of Thelemic magick is when it’s reduced to nothing but “Do what thou wilt”. It just becomes secular framing for New Age spirituality (which is already secular). And any attempt to further develop the Thelemic dimension of the practices—by adding a worldview or a theory of what the human being is—is dismissed as “just your opinion,” an example of you “just being a nominal Crowleyan”.
The result is that no one has to be held accountable to their views. You can say whatever stupid shit you want—just say “I don’t speak on behalf of O.T.O. or other Thelemites blah blah blah”—and if you’re challenged, you can just wave your hand and say, “To each their own! 🙂 ”
“Every man and every woman is just trying to relax. Can we talk about this later?”
7. Spirituality is like Amazon.com. Grab what you like and leave the rest.
This one isn’t specific to Consensus Thelema. You find it in Spiritual-But-Not-Religious and New Age spirituality generally. But it follows from Consensus Thelema’s pragmatism, denial that there are Thelemic teachings, and that no one, not even Crowley, gets to tell you anything, even if it’s not to stick your head in a fucking fan.
There is some legitimacy to this insofar as Crowley himself was eclectic, and at least in A∴A∴, the approach is multicultural and perennial. But Consensus Thelemites aren’t insisting on this because they’re A∴A∴ aspirants. This comes from the overculture and from the Consensus Thelema interpretation of true will.
Your true will is your divinely appointed “mission”. It’s your “unique path” that only you can possibly know. And because it’s completely unique to you, that’s why you’re justified being a Tantric Wiccan Jew or a Norse Thelemic Christian Buddhist.
Each of these traditions has its own worldview and ethics, parts of which contradict the others. And any of these traditions has its own discipline. But you don’t have to worry about any of that, because you don’t have to submit to any discipline that doesn’t fit your style or preferences. Whatever your “will” is, it’s not known by any tradition, certainly not by any priest or monk, so you only have yourself to answer to. (Cf. Crowley’s essay The Scientific Solution to the Problem of Government for his own, alternative view.)
“I care whether it’s useful to me personally to believe/do X.”
And yes, the idea of true will as a personal mission does have its root in Crowley’s thought; however, Crowley also said 90% of Thelema is just self-discipline. In other words, it’s 90% about what you can consistently live in accordance with in the real world, not what you decide to call yourself. Without getting deep into the question of what true will is, clearly some deviation has taken place here if you’ve ended up at Muslim Cum Shaman as your spiritual identity.
It’s a consumerist mentality. But this notion of unique mission also fits with the tendency a certain segment of the American population has to identify with their careers.
In O.T.O. it’s common now to see people using Ikigai to figure out what their will is. I even came up with my own white collar professionalized version of true will (mea culpa). And yes, there is support for something like this in Crowley. But is this really coming from Crowley, or are people cherry-picking from Crowley to justify a lifestyle they probably would have had anyway because that’s the one relatively affluent people in America are directed toward?
Most people aren’t going to have careers that reflect their “passions”. They’re going to have jobs. When we spiritualize career paths or consumption, we’re not just dragging the transcendent down to Earth. We’re effectively gilding a (temporary) class relationship in the language of religion.
8. Consensus Thelema constitutes a form of Enchanted Centrism.
The idea that truth—spiritual or otherwise—reduces to personal truth (whatever my conscience dictates or whatever “works for me”) is not particular to Thelema per se. It’s a defining feature of secularism generally.
There’s no established religion in a secular state. Religion is a private affair. A club, church, or association could establish for themselves a version of what counts as the good life, but no such interpretation is to be enshrined at the political level. “Do what thou wilt,” at least the Consensus Thelema version, is a lot older than Crowley.
But Consensus Thelema is a microcosm of that. This general subcultural attitude is institutionalized in O.T.O.’s policy of protecting individual interpretation of the Book of the Law. Normally a church would have an interpretation of what religious or spiritual truth is. It would form an axis around which the community was constituted. But O.T.O. is run in such a way that its authorities are like the secular state, and each individual is like their own church. It’s hyper-secularized. One result is that Thelema is reduced to not much more than a secular framing for interest in Crowley-adjacent occultism. Another result is that one of the capacities of the ego—the freedom of choice—is elevated above any mortal reproach.
We live in a culture where the messaging from every angle, from the time you wake in the morning until the time you go to sleep at night, is to purchase, indulge, and consume. We’re told not only that failure to work is a sign of a lack of character, but also that everyone’s job ought to be their “passion,” and even that spirituality is all about “doing the work.” Rather than offering a sensible critique of any of this, Consensus Thelema’s commentary is to say you’re God for participating in it. The divine part of you is the part that’s choosy. It’s just a doubling-down on the same meaning-destroying logic of our culture we’re inundated with anyway.
None of this is to say that there’s anything wrong with secularism per se, just that there are pitfalls involved in a spirituality asserting this kind of agnosticism about the good life.
But is the agnosticism even offered in good faith? As soon as someone suggests it’s possible for someone to do their will in a way which contradicts contemporary centrist values, the value-relativism evaporates like dry ice left in the hot sun.
People lost their fucking minds when this article came out. I didn’t agree with everything in it, but basically what the author is saying is that if you grant people the right to think and speak as they will, you have to accept that some of those things they think and speak may be vile. Maybe the ethical and political issues we’re currently preoccupied with aren’t the center of gravity of Thelema.
People were indignant. In fits of what I can only describe as hysteria, some called the author a fascist. It’s inconceivable to them that someone could be doing their will and be anything other than centrist by early 21st century affluent American standards.
How progressive does someone have to be before it’s okay to say they’re doing their true will? Whatever standard you choose, isn’t it still going to follow that, before very recently, no one could even possibly have been doing their true will because their standard of politeness didn’t match ours? And if trends in 25 years are more progressive than they are now (which I hope they are), does that mean not even the most “woke” of us now could possibly be doing our wills either?
The thought-terminating cliché that gets used here is that “Love is the law” means that “will” has to be “tempered by love” or some bullshit. “Be nice under will.”
There seems to be this expectation—not just among Consensus Thelemites but among a lot of alternative spiritual types in the United States I’ve talked to—that every spiritually attained person has to have been nice by early-21st century standards. “Enlightened” people talk in a low, even voice, sort of like an NPR host. They never get upset. All enlightened people throughout history were nice like this. They never got annoyed, or if they did, they were “mindful” of it, whatever that means. None of them had views which were sexist or racist by early 21st century standards. They all wore sweater vests and laughed a lot.
Someone once told me that Masters of the Temple “are light-hearted and make a lot of jokes like [insert name of popular Thelemite here].”
Live, laugh, love.
I don’t have a problem with people being nice, but being inoffensive isn’t exactly a high bar either. It’s not the same thing as being generous or brave or living with dignity or being reliable. It’s said that nice guys finish last. I don’t think that’s true. But if when asked to list off your best qualities, the best you can come up with is, “I’m not a raging dickhole,” you may want to work on yourself.
So how is it that the guy who whipped his coolies up K2 and ate his girlfriend’s turd created a religion that seems to select for these middle-of-the-road traits? That’s a story for another time. What’s clear to me is that, in its consensus form, Thelema has lost any capacity for challenging and creating culture.
9. Consensus Thelemites are often treated as brave for saying things that involve exactly zero risk in a Consensus Thelema context.
I told you earlier I was going to show you the replies to that Reddit comment shutting down the person asking a question about Thelema. I also asked you how many people you thought would disagree with it.
You may want to get any children out of the room before reading this.
“Yeah! Shut it down! Fuck nuance! What a breath of fresh air! I’ll upvote that! What do Thelemites believe? Fuck you. That’s what Thelemites believe! Put that in your FAQ!”
What a house of horrors.
There’s a particular individual who gives good talks at NOTOCON. But they’ll say something like (and I am paraphrasing more in the spirit of what they say than giving an actual quote), “…and if someone tries to tell you what your true will is, you tell them FUCK YOU!” And everyone rises out of their chairs and starts cheering with an intensity of adoration that would make Kim Jong-Un blush.
Who the fuck is this person telling you … anything about Thelema or your will? And why is being told something such a big deal?
I wouldn’t want my children to see that.
About a year ago there was an article on this site (since taken down, maybe because it was a health hazard to diabetics) which suggested it was “taboo” to speak of the Holy Guardian Angel or to openly express criticism of spiritual hierarchies(!). The author then went on to describe the Holy Guardian Angel as “a sun-spirit of Tiphareth” and to suggest it acted as “guide, mentor, teacher, therapist, empowering friend, source of direction or orientation in times of confusion, confidant, or lover”.
This is self-care for edgelords.
That article was about as taboo as a fucking Barry Manilow concert. You could almost hear the lighters click on and everyone singing along.
Wise-sounding but ultimately vacuous or blithe pronouncements go over really well in Consensus Thelema spaces.
Good luck parsing that statement. What the fuck does that even mean?
Like I’m over here trying to grow a fucking pair of gills? Who is this written for?
The last one is just something I made up, but is it even possible to tell the difference anymore?
10. There’s no such thing as Consensus Thelema.
ROTFLMAO! What do you mean “Consensus Thelema”? Haha. Thelemites are such a fractious bunch! Hahaha! All they ever do is disagree and fight. 🙂 Ask 6 Thelemites a question, and you’ll get 12 opinions! Haha! And 3 of them will be Crowley’s! 🙂 Hahaha! Hahahahaha! Hahahaha! Haha! Hahahaha! Hahahahahahaha! Hahahahahahaha!
If you take away nothing else from this article, learn to become aware of thought-terminating clichés in the Thelemic subculture. Here are some of the ones I covered in this article:
- “That’s just your opinion.” – Implying all opinions are of equal value, but this is false when talking about factual matters. In the Thelemic subculture, often framed as:
- “It is my will to do/believe X” – Implies that X is optional, or that the goodness of X reduces to my desire to do it. Is that actually the case? Are we talking about something optional, or are we talking about something factual? Can the value of X be determined independently of wanting it?
- “Stop thinking so much/Thelemites overthink things/thought is unspiritual” – Redirects attention from the topic, idea, or argument at hand to the alleged overuse of thought itself.
- “Yes, but Crowley changed his mind constantly” – Implies that Crowley personally changing his mind on something has any bearing on an argument, when it may not necessarily be relevant, or the statement may be factually incorrect.
- “You’re just being a Crowleyite” – An example of the ad hominem logical fallacy. Who or what the speaker is does not determine whether their opinion is justified or not.
- “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law” – Sadly what should be a call to freedom and a cause of joy is used to silence critics and bolster the ego of the person uttering it.
- “Love is the law, love under will.” – Illiberal action/belief X is not “love” and so cannot be part of Thelemic ethics. Arbitrary definition of Thelemic love to justify Enchanted Centrism.
- “Whatever works/whatever is useful is what’s true for me” – Used to shut down disagreement by making the truth of the situation relative to the (private) intentions of the individual saying it. Consider that knowing the truth about something is often useful, too.
I’m under no illusion that this article will bring me much besides condescending or hateful replies. It’s probably about as useful to me personally as pissing straight into a strong wind. But maybe some people will read this and become more cognizant of the way they or others are eliminating complexity and foreclosing on alternative views and ways of practicing Thelema. If your view is that you’re already a very open, creative thinker, or that the Thelemic subculture expresses this, then paying attention to these patterns of speech and thought can only make you better.
Other articles by Entelecheia:
- Thelema As A Path Of Erotic Liberation
- Tradition & Eternity: Thelema, Christianity, And The Interior Order
- Prophetic Speech And Silence: My Journey With The Comment
- Strength, Virtue, And The Man Of Earth
- Occultism And Mental Illness: Returning Magic To Its Healing Roots
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Thelemic Union is open to all articles that are relevant to Thelema in some way. Send your submissions to thelemic[dot]union[at]gmail[dot]com