Is Thelema a Religion or not?

Is Thelema Religion or Not?

Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

One of the ever-present questions in the discourse about Thelema is whether or not it is a religion. I think this question is most poetically answered by someone – I believe the credit goes to Jake Stratton-Kent – who said:

“There is religion in Thelema for those that require it. There is also freedom from religion in Thelema, for those that require it.”

In short: Yes… and no. All I can attempt to do is elaborate on this position to make it a bit more clear.

Before going too far in depth, it should be said that – according to anthropologists, sociologists, theologists, and the like – Thelema would most definitely be classified as a “religion.” It has a “Bible” (Liber AL vel Legis), a moral code (Do what thou wilt), a Prophet (To Mega Therion), a set of practices (Magick), and even a “pantheon” (Nuit, Hadit, Ra-Hoor-Khuit, Hoor-paar-kraat, et cetera). Whether or not this is entirely an accurate designation is another question.

We might first look at why people wouldn’t want to call Thelema a “religion.” The answer is fairly obvious: “religion” in the 21st Century has become synonymous with superstition, tyranny, and oppression. There is no doubt about this: organized religion has, for millenia, been a force for all of these horrible things that stand against the spirit of Liberty. Many people who are most vocal about Thelema not being a religion are those who experienced this superstition, tyranny, and oppression first-hand in their childhood, and I personally do not find their reaction to be hard to understand. 

In this light, we can see that Crowley himself was wary of the use of the term “religion” to describe Thelema. In a letter found in Magick Without Tears, he writes:

“To sum up, our system is a religion just so far as a religion means an enthusiastic putting-together of a series of doctrines, no one of which must in any way clash with Science or Magick. Call it a new religion, then, if it so please your Gracious Majesty; but I confess that I fail to see what you will have gained by so doing, and I feel bound to add that you might easily cause a great deal of misunderstanding, and work a rather stupid kind of mischief.

We should note, firstly, that Crowley begins this quotation by saying that – according to a certain definition of religion as “an enthusiastic putting-together of a series of doctrines” – Thelema is, in fact, a religion. He then says that calling Thelema a “religion” may cause misunderstanding and mischief. He does not explain exactly why it would cause misunderstanding and mischief but we can guess that it is most likely for the aforementioned reasons: it associates it with the Old Aeon religions that are gleaming beacons of superstition, tyranny, and oppression, i.e. those exact things we are set to destroy with our Law of Liberty. People may also assume that we believe things that other religions do, especially the Judeo-Christian-Islamic type, such as the belief in a gaseous vertebrate breed of God, which is most certainly false. 

In short, we may refrain from calling Thelema a religion because it associates it with superstition, tyranny, and oppression which Thelema is firmly against in every way, being the Law of Liberty. Our Law is simultaneously more simple and more nuanced than a belief in a Judeo-Christian-Islamic Daddy-in-the-sky God. Keep in mind, though, that this implies that calling Thelema a religion may cause misunderstanding and mischief, but it does not imply that the designation is inaccurate in some fundamental way. 

Now we may turn to the reasons why Thelema is a religion. First of all, Crowley calls Thelema a religion repeatedly.

In his commentary on Liber AL, III:22, Crowley writes:

Our religion therefore, for the People, is the Cult of the Sun, who is our particular star of the Body of Nuit, from whom, in the strictest scientific sense, come this earth, a chilled spark of Him, and all our Light and Life.”

In this line, he very clearly calls Thelema a religion, although there is a caveat that it is “for the People,” by which we may assume he means “the masses” and not necessarily for the “Hermits” or “initiates” or “Adepts”  (although this is, admittedly, an assumption).

In The Constitution of the Order of Thelemites, Crowley writes this Order is against “All superstitious religion, as obstacles to the establishment of scientific religion.” Here he clearly calls Thelema a religion, but he opposes “superstitious religion” (those of the Old Aeon and many of those that have cropped up in the New Aeon as well) to “scientific religion.” We get a further clarification that Thelema, insofar as it is a religion, is not opposed to science. 

In the “Editorial” prefacing The Equinox III:1 (also known as The Blue Equinox), Crowley writes an important passage:

The world needs religion. Religion must represent Truth, and celebrate it. This truth is of two orders: one, concerning Nature external to Man; two, concerning Nature internal to Man.

Existing religions, especially Christianity, are based on primitive ignorance of the facts, particularly of external Nature. Celebrations must conform to the custom and nature of the people. Christianity has destroyed the joyful celebrations, characterized by music, dancing, feasting, and making love; and has kept only the melancholy.

The Law of Thelema offers a religion which fulfils all necessary conditions. The philosophy and metaphysics of Thelema are sound, and offer a solution of the deepest problems of humanity. The science of Thelema is orthodox; it has no false theories of Nature, no false fables of the origin of things. The psychology and ethics of Thelema are perfect. It has destroyed the damnable delusion of Original Sin, making every one unique, independent, supreme, and sufficient. The Law of Thelema is given in the Book of the Law.”

Here we have another instance of Crowley explicitly calling Thelema a religion. He insists again that it must “represent Truth, and celebrate it,” concurring with the aforementioned quotation that insists Thelema is a “scientific religion.”

From these quotations, it seems fairly clear that Crowley did – with the caveat that it represents and celebrates Truth and is “scientific” – consider Thelema a religion. There is a further point that, in my opinion, clarifies the entire matter: Thelema is a religion but it is more than just a religion. I have said several times that Thelema is an all-encompassing paradigm, and this is meant to imply that Thelema is a religion… and much more.

We have already seen inklings of this idea in the previous quotation where Crowley calls Thelema a religion while also mentioning the philosophy, metaphysics, science, psychology, and ethics of Thelema. In his Confessions, Crowley conveys this idea that Thelema is more than just a religion with great clarity when he writes:

Thelema implies not merely a new religion, but a new cosmology, a new philosophy, a new ethics. It co-ordinates the disconnected discoveries of science, from physics to psychology, into a coherent and consistent system. Its scope is so vast that it is impossible even to hint at the universality of its application.”

He says “Thelema implies not merely a new religion.” It also implies a new cosmology, philosophy, and ethics. Thelema is not limited to the small sphere of theology. This perspective is reflected in the fact that we, following Crowley, call Thelema a “Law.” This Law is given in The Book of the Law. Crowley also calls Thelema a “formula.” For example, in the essay “The Beginning of the New World” (which can be found in the recently-published The Revival of Magick), Crowley writes:

“The many religions of the world have all lost their power to guide chiefly because the development of means of transport and of international commerce have convinced the educated that any one religion is about as good or bad as another for the purposes of social discipline, and that none has any validity from the standpoint of actual fact, or historical or philosophical truth.

The remedy is evidently to be found only in one way. There must be found a formula based upon absolute common sense, without one trammel of theological theory or dogma, a formula to which no man of intelligence can refuse assent, and which at the same time affords an absolute sanction for all laws of conduct, social and political no less than individual, so that the right or wrong of any isolated or concerted action can be determined with mathematical accuracy by any trained observer, entirely irrespective of his personal idiosyncrasies. This formula is: Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.”

When we consider Thelema as a “Law” or a “formula,” we are – first of all – using language that is in common with science (e.g. “the law of gravity” or “the formula for calculating velocity”). More importantly, we are using language that is universal insofar as this Law or formula applies to all aspects of life. 

Fresh Fever From the Skies: The Collected Writings of IAO131I believe the idea that Thelema is not just a religion but a new paradigm of cosmology, metaphysics, ethics, and psychology is the most accurate perspective on whether or not Thelema is a religion. Insofar as Thelema is a religion, it is a religion that is explicitly opposed to superstition, to “theological theory or dogma” (ideally!), and oppression. In the end, what’s in a name? Thelema’s Law is “Do what thou wilt” and people are free to call it a religion or not. Whether you choose to call it a religion or not is your own choice, and whether or not someone else chooses to call Thelema a religion is none of our business. The real question, the one that really matters, is: Are you living the Law of Thelema? Have you written “Do what thou wilt” in your heart and in your brain? Have you used the simplicity of the Key of the Law to unlock the complexities of philosophy, psychology, theology, and daily life? In short: are you doing your True Will or not? In light of this central consideration all other things, including what names and titles we give to things, are – at best – totally irrelevant and are – at worst – leading us to mischief and futility. As always: There is no law beyond Do what thou wilt.

Love is the law, love under will.

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The Philosophy of Thelema, pt.2: Epistemology

Philosophy of Thelema

There are two stances on reason that are expounded in Liber AL vel Legis. The first stance is that reason must be subservient to Will and the second stance is the importance of direct experience over reason. These ideas about reason intertwine and support one another.

First, the Will is ‘supra-rational’ or beyond reason. The section in Liber AL vel Legis that deals with this comes from chapter 2,

“There is great danger in me; for who doth not understand these runes shall make a great miss. He shall fall down into the pit called Because, and there he shall perish with the dogs of Reason. Now a curse upon Because and his kin! May Because be accursed for ever! If Will stops and cries Why, invoking Because, then Will stops & does nought. If Power asks why, then is Power weakness. Also reason is a lie; for there is a factor infinite & unknown; & all their words are skew-wise. Enough of Because! Be he damned for a dog! But ye, o my people, rise up & awake!” (lines 27-34)

Here we have a curse upon “Because,” “Reason,” and “Why.” There is no “Why” or “Because” to Will: it simply GOES, it simply IS. Because we inhabit a world of Infinite Space and since reason can only work with finite ideas and quantities, then reason cannot express the Infinite purely and accurately. It is a “lie” because of this “factor infinite & unknown.” Crowley writes, “There is no ‘reason’ why a Star should continue in its orbit. Let her rip! …It is ridiculous to ask a dog why it barks. One must fulfil one’s true Nature, one must do one’s Will. To question this is to destroy confidence, and so to create an inhibition.” (The Law is For All, II:30-31) Therefore, reason should attend to its own business (solving problems of rationality) and allow the Will to flow uninhibited; otherwise, “One risks falling form the world of Will (‘freed from the lust of result’) to that of Reason” (Djeridensis Working, Liber AL II:30). Crowley continues, “We must not suppose for an instant that the Book of the Law is opposed to reason. On the contrary, its own claim to authority rests upon reason, and nothing else. It disdains the arts of the orator. It makes reason the autocrat of the mind. But that very fact emphasizes that the mind should attend to its own business. It should not transgress its limits. It should be a perfect machine, an apparatus for representing the universe accurately and impartially to its master. The Self, its Will, and its Apprehension, should be utterly beyond it.” (The Law is For All, II:27). Also, “When reason usurps the higher functions of the mind, when it presumes to dictate to the Will what its desires ought to be, it wrecks the entire structure of the star. The Self should set the Will in motion, that is, the Will should only take its orders from within and above” (“Djeridensis Working,” II:31).

Another claim is made in Liber AL vel Legis I:58, “I give unimaginable joys on earth: certainty, not faith, while in life, upon death; peace unutterable, rest, ecstasy; nor do I demand aught in sacrifice.” The Will does not require articles of faith to be accepted but rather asks that the individual rely on their experiences. It is the faith conferred by the direct experience of the”consciousness of the continuity of existence” (Liber AL vel Legis I:26) that is offered. Rational precepts are not proposed, debated over, accepted, and rejected but rather one attains various Trances and learn from one’s experiences. When one attains the “consciousness of the continuity of existence” (Liber AL vel Legis I:26) and becomes “chief of all” (Liber AL vel Legis I:23), the unity of this perception is not explainable by the duality of reason. In relation to this experience we find “there could be no reality in any intellectual concept of any kind, that the only reality must lie in direct experience of such a kind that it is beyond the scope of the critical apparatus of our minds. It cannot be subject to the laws of Reason; it cannot be found in the fetters of elementary mathematics; only transfinite and irrational conceptions in that subject can possibly shadow forth the truth in some such paradox as the identity of contradictories.” (Eight Lectures on Yoga) Crowley also says, “To have any sensible meaning at all, faith must mean experience… Nothing is any use to us unless it be a certainty unshakeable by criticism of any kind, and there is only one thing in the universe which complies with these conditions: the direct experience of spiritual truth. Here, and here only, do we find a position in which the great religious minds of all times and all climes coincide. It is necessarily above dogma, because dogma consists of a collection of intellectual statements, each of which, and also its contradictory, can easily be disputed and overthrown.” (Eight Lectures on Yoga) This perception of the world as continuous and unitary is not offered on faith but can be achieved and recognized as a certainty by those who attain thereto.

One other doctrine relating to reason that appears in Crowley’s writings but not explicitly in Liber AL vel Legis is the idea of the circularity of reason. Reason can only manipulate and work with articles of reason; this relates to what was said above because the problems in the sphere of reason should not usurp the power of or dictate actions to the sphere of Will. We have an example of this doctrine of the circularity of reason in “The Antecedents of Thelema” where Crowley writes, “All proofs turn out on examination to be definitions. All definitions are circular. (For a = bc, b = de … w = xy, and y = za.)” In this sense, reason deals with relations between illusion. This is certainly useful – science is a good example of this – but it doesn’t give us any powerful facts of the way things are. In a deeper sense, reason works within the realms of duality while the Will must remain one-pointed and therefore not mired in the relations of reason. Crowley writes further on this idea in the essay “Knowledge” in Little Essays Toward Truth, “All knowledge may be expressed in the form S=P. But if so, the idea P is really implicit in S; thus we have learnt nothing… S=P (unless identical, and therefore senseless) is an affirmation of duality; or, we may say, intellectual perception is a denial of Samadhic truth. It is therefore essentially false in the depths of its nature.” Reason is understood as simply the relation of words which point to other words, ad infinitum. Further, as mentioned above, because reason works with relations between ideas (the relation between ‘S’ and ‘P’ above), it affirms duality in the world. Two things can only be related in reason if they are distinct and therefore separate.

Again, all of these ideas about reason intertwine to give us a general picture of Thelema’s approach to the place of knowledge and reason. Essentially, the Will of the individual is beyond reason, or supra-rational, so one cannot ask “Why” of it or justify it with “Because.” Fresh Fever From the Skies: The Collected Writings of IAO131The individual must then constantly go forward and experience new and various things, not depending on articles of faith. Reason is a human faculty that allows us to manipulate & find the relations between finite facts and ideas. Because of this it must work within its own sphere (i.e. deal with problems of rationality like mathematics, science, etc.) while leaving the Will to act uninhibited. With this understanding, one can be guarded against reason when it asks “whence camest thou? Whither wilt thou go?” with the response “No whence! No whither! …Is there not joy ineffable in this aimless winging? Is there not weariness and impatience for who would attain to some goal?” (Liber LXV, II:21-22, 24)

The Philosophy of Thelema, pt.1: Metaphysics

Philosophy of Thelema


There is an ongoing and perhaps eternal debate about whether Thelema is a religion, philosophy, or way of life (or all of them or none of them). In my view, Thelema certainly has something to offer the areas of both religion and philosophy. This essay will look at how Thelema approaches the classic divisions of philosophy including metaphysics (including ontology, cosmology, eschatology, and teleology), epistemology, and ethics.

Metaphysics is essentially the study of the nature of the world. It is traditionally split into ontology, cosmology, eschatology, and teleology.

Ontology: None & Two

Ontology is the study of being, existence, or reality. Thelema’s ontology is stated simply as “None and Two.” The world is understood as ‘Nothing’ or ‘Naught,’ which is something completely beyond all description and limit. In Liber AL vel Legis I:27, it is written “Then the priest answered & said unto the Queen of Space, kissing her lovely brows, and the dew of her light bathing his whole body in a sweet-smelling perfume of sweat: O Nuit, continuous one of Heaven, let it be ever thus; that men speak not of Thee as One but as None; and let them speak not of thee at all, since thou art continuous!” Many mystics have called it “Unity” but even this, some may argue, implies something as “not-One.” Crowley writes in “De Lege Libellum,” “All Things that are in Truth One Thing only, whose name hath been called No Thing.” From this comes the necessity of explaining the appearance of duality. Instead of a “Fall of Man” or an imprisonment of the soul in matter, Thelema explains the appearance of duality in this fashion: “None… and two. For I am divided for love’s sake, for the chance of union. This is the creation of the world, that the pain of division is as nothing, and the joy of dissolution all.” (Liber AL I:28-30). In this way, the many or divided are in such a position so they may become one and unite. This is given further explanation in Book of Lies ch.3 where it is written, “The Many is as adorable to the One as the One is to the Many. This is the Love of These; creation-parturition is the Bliss of the One; coition-dissolution is the Bliss of the Many. / The All, thus interwoven of These, is Bliss.”

…see also “Berashith” by Aleister Crowley, Magick Without Tears ch.5, Book of Lies ch.3, 12, and 46


Cosmology: Nuit, Hadit, Ra-Hoor-Khuit, and Stars

Cosmology deals with what the Universe is essentially. One might argue that there exist several similar but interchangeable cosmologies in Thelema: for example, the Creed of the Gnostic Mass gives a rudimentary cosmology, the “Matter in Motion” idea in the New Comment (to Chapter 1, Verse 1), and the Qabalistic understanding in chapter 0! of Book of Lies. In the end, the most widespread cosmology, and the one rooted in The Book of the Law, is the idea of Nuit, Hadit, and Ra-Hoor-Khuit. Thelema understands Nuit as Infinite Space which is “Heaven” that is occupied by various Points-of-View, or Hadit. Each star – “every man and every woman” – is in the Body of Infinite Space and has Hadit as its core, who is “the complement of Nu, my bride,” “the flame that burns in every heart of man, and in the core of every star,” as well as “Life, and the giver of Life.” These together create the Universe as we know it. “In the sphere [Hadit is] everywhere the centre, as [Nuit], the circumference, is nowhere found.” There are many interpretations of Nuit and Hadit – for example, with Nuit as matter and Hadit as motion and their interplay being the universe but the basic idea remains the same.

…see also Liber AL vel Legis ch.1 & 2, Book of Lies ch.0 & 11, the “Creed” of “The Gnostic Mass”


Eschatology: The destruction of the self & the dawning of the Aeon of Horus

Eschatology deals with the idea of end-times. There is certainly no Last Judgment in the philosophy of Thelema. In a sense, one can view the attainment of the Crossing of the Abyss, the destruction of the personality or ego, as the end-times of the ‘self’ and the waking to the Self. Another interpretation of eschatology is the “destruction of the world by fire” (which can also be interpreted in the former sense of the destruction of the self), which Crowley gives symbolically in Atu XX: Aeon of the Tarot. In this other interpretation, the world was “destroyed by fire” with the reception of Liber AL vel Legis in 1904. Crowley writes in The Book of Thoth, “The old card was called The Angel: or, The Last Judgment. It represented an Angel or Messenger blowing a trumpet, attached to which was a flag, bearing the symbol of the Aeon of Osiris… The card therefore represented the destruction of the world by Fire. This was accomplished in the year of the vulgar era 1904, when the fiery god Horus took the place of the airy god Osiris in the East as Hierophant.”

…see also The Book of Thoth “XX. The Aeon”

Teleology: Will

Teleology deals with the purpose or the understanding of the design of the universe. In Thelema, the teleology is clearly one of “Will.” One might contrast the teleology of Thelema with that of Schopenhauer’s Will-to-Life and Nietzsche’s Will-to-Power, where Thelema understands it as a Will-to-Love. All experiences and events are occurrences of two things uniting into a third. Fresh Fever From the Skies: The Collected Writings of IAO131The necessary formula of each star is then “love under will” – to find that Will and do it. Just as each star has its particular orbit in the macrocosm of space, every man and every woman has their particular Way on earth. As Crowley writes in the introduction to Liber AL vel Legis, “Each action or motion is an act of love, the uniting with one or another part of “Nuit”; each such act must be ‘under will,’ chosen so as to fulfil and not to thwart the true nature of the being concerned.”