Thursday, January 27, 2011

Definitions of Religion - Legitimacy vs. Authenticity

My previous article brought up some interesting side issues that caught me quite by surprise in regards to the question of Strega lineages, something which I had to beg forbearance from my readers, since I know very little about that particular topic. Still, I often find these discussions and arguments fairly useless, since they often confuse and conflate two very different processes that are active in religion, and that is the difference between legitimacy and authenticity. While these issues have less of an impact in larger community religions, such as Christianity, they are quite hotly contested in the much smaller religious communities of witchcraft and paganism.

First of all, lets look at the definition of these two terms, starting with the dictionary definitions and then look at them in regards to sociological and psychological definitions. We also need to keep in mind that there are two very dissimilar viewpoints characterizing religion, that of exoteric or public religion and that of esoteric or occultic religion. Depending on a person’s or group’s perspective, the terms of legitimacy or authenticity can have a far greater weight and importance.

If we look at the dictionary definition for the word “legitimate,” we will find amongst the expected definitions the term “lawful” and “conforming to accepted rules, standards, etc.” Since we are not talking about a legitimate birth, we won’t go into the definitions that are concerned with how one was born, although sometimes the terms associated with legitimate and illegitimate in regards to birth do get conflated when discussing religious organizations. This is why some groups may be referred to as legitimate or illegitimate, where the proper term would be sanctioned or unsanctioned in regards to rules and protocols - a concern specific to spiritual and religious legitimacy. 

The dictionary definition of the word “authentic” gives the associated terms “genuine” and  “real,” which I believe are important for our discussion. Interestingly, the word “authenticate” has the associated phrases “to make valid, to verify, to prove to be genuine.” It would seem that authentic would represent a religious system where genuine and real experiences are held in high esteem as opposed to lawful decorum or conforming to doctrines, practices or rules. So it would seem that the word authentic is concerned with inner experiences and legitimacy is concerned with outer practices and established rules.

These two terms, when used to define a religious group or organization reveal the fact that they refer to different and opposed dimensions. Legitimacy defines a horizontal dimension that represents social integration, cohesion, group identity and order (rules, doctrine, practices). Authenticity defines a vertical dimension that is more focused on the individual and upon personal transformation and transcendence. Just this simple differentiation of terms reveals two very starkly different approaches to religion. One is exoteric, socially integrative and is concerned with communication and accessibility, and the other is esoteric, insular, and is concerned with mysteries, paradoxes and methods of inducing ecstasy. The former is engaged with translation, the later, with transformation. As you can see, these two dynamics in religion have contrary goals and directions, and confusing them can make communication between adherents of the same faith nearly impossible.   

To further clarify this discussion, I want to present a distillation of some of Ken Wilber’s perspectives and ideas on this issue. It was while I was reading and studying some of his ideas about religion that I had an experience that changed the way I look at religion in general, and more specifically, people’s engagement in their own chosen religion. After reading and digesting what Ken Wilber has wrote on this topic, it was almost as if a light turned on in my mind. I finally realized how easy it was for individuals and groups in witchcraft and paganism to get into passionate disputes with each other, forcing schisms and breaking up groups and spiritual families. I discovered that it often came down to whether one chose to follow the path of religious legitimacy or religious authenticity. The recent schism in the Faery/Feri tradition would seem to represent this particular distinction and how it can push individuals to follow one path or the other. They are not mutually exclusive, and in fact many have found a religious path that incorporates a certain degree of both, but they do represent diametrically opposing directions, and one can’t fully and wholly engage in one without diminishing or nullifying the other.

Let me continue with my discussion about my studies and what I discovered. Ken Wilber has written a book entitled “A Sociable God” (Shambhala Publications, 2005) to help define religion and religious phenomena using the latest theories in both the social sciences, as well his own theories regarding Integral Psychology. I have found this work to be extremely important and ground breaking, since it reduces down to a simple set of definitions what is a very complex multi-disciplined set of theories which contradict each other and are hotly debated between scholars of the same or different disciplines. Ken Wilber has offered this simplified and systematic approach, thus unifying the different perspectives and eliminating contentious points of view. I might also add that these opposing views have done more to confuse the various issues about the nature of religion than clarify them.

The greatest problem in defining religion is that it is many things to many people. There is, as yet, no single uniform perspective embodying all religious viewpoints, or at least none that would make any sense. This is precisely the point that Mr. Wilber made in his work. I will present Wilber’s ideas distilled from his book in the paragraphs below for the sake of efficiency and brevity. I also wish to present this information in manner that cuts to the core of the issues surrounding religion, assisting us to succinctly understand the spiritual and religious beliefs involving witchcraft, paganism and magick.

In his book (see chapter 5, pages 98 -102), Ken Wilber presents seven distinct perspectives based on a general  definition of religion, using a combination of the various social and psychological theories. He identifies seven basic areas, and includes two more that help to determine the depth and breadth of any one single creed (vertical and horizontal dimensions). We will cover each of these in the order that Wilber presented them in his book. Keep in mind that some previous theorists have written whole books on just one of these seven perspectives.

1. Religion is a non-rational engagement. By labeling it non-rational, religion is therefore defined as belonging to or originating out of a dimension that is “other” to reason and rationality. This would indicate that the nature of Spirit, of which religion is principally concerned about, is something that can’t be either quantified or even qualified, thus making it wholly transcendental and paradoxical.

2. Religion is an extremely meaningful or integrative engagement. This definition perceives religion as being an entirely social phenomenon that brings people together, teaching them to resolve their differences and live peacefully for the common good of all. Therefore, religion is concerned with making collective meaning and searching for collective truths that further the integrity and stability of the communal organization.

3. Religion is an immortality project, which is created to deal with the insecurities associated with the ephemeral quality of human life. This theory defines religion as a powerful social belief system that bolsters the confidence of the individual member, giving one a sense of being an elite participant in the collective destiny of the group. This has the effect of assisting individuals to cope with catastrophic loss and death (as well as the potential for such) by causing them to focus instead on the guarantee of a spiritual afterlife.

4. Religion is a mechanism for evolutionary growth through conscious transformation and spiritual evolution, so that by applying oneself to its discipline, one can fully apprehend the spiritual dimension of the self. As Wilber so adroitly put it: “[E]volution and history is a process of increasing self-realization, or the overcoming of alienation via the return of spirit to spirit as spirit.” This whole process represents the drive for transcendent self-realization and personal transformation.

5. Religion represents a social phenomenon of collective psychotic fixations and is therefore, inherently regressive, pre-personal and pre-rational. Wilber says that this perspective has a negative opinion about religion: “[R]eligion is childish illusion, magic, myth.” This perspective represents the typical attitude of empirical science and academia towards religion in general, and is a major part of the creeds of social secularism and atheism. Sigmund Freud held this opinion about religion, and so did Karl Marx and many others.

6. Religion is an exoteric social institution, and its mysteries and paradoxes are understood through the periodic and continual practice of liturgy and the study of sacred scriptures, shared by all members of a specific doctrine or creed. Religion is a public organization where everything is determined and explained in great detail, and nothing is left to chance or self-determination. Exoteric religion consists of the basic and fundamental principles of any religious organization. As Wilber has said in his book: It is a “form of belief system used to invoke or support faith,..preparatory to [an] esoteric experience and adaption..”

7. Religion is esoteric and occultic, and its mysteries and paradoxes are obscured and buried deep within the core belief system that everyone else takes for granted. These mysteries are typically not realized by the general adherent, but requires a deeper and inner exposure to that spiritual system, often acquired through the agency of a teacher and an individualized spiritual practice. The goal of esoteric religion is the obtainment of mystical experiences and a direct realization of spirit in all manifestation.

After having written down these seven different perspectives on the nature of religion, Wilber then examines the horizontal and vertical dimensions of the scope of religion, which brings us to the polarization of the two terms, legitimacy and authenticity. Notice the contrast between translation and transformation, which particularly characterize the breadth and depth of a particular religious practice.

8. Religion is only legitimate when it validates the particular “translation” or perspective established by a given doctrine or creed, usually providing its members positive reinforcements (“good mana”), and helping them to avoid social taboos (“bad mana”). This confers upon individuals a powerful emotional and social sense of being a member of a spiritual community, thereby providing personal meaningfulness, group destiny, and eschatological symbols of immortality.

Legitimacy in religion represents a horizontal dimension to qualifying a religion, and it incorporates the above definitions 2, 3 and 6. Legitimacy is concerned with the smoothness of translation (that it is readily understandable and rational) and the integrity of its social values.

9. Religion is authentic when it validates the particular “transformation” or deeper inner experience of a spiritual system. An authentic religion cuts through doctrine and dogma, giving its adherents the tools and methodologies to achieve a direct experience with the core of that religious system, and is less concerned with the outer trappings and the exegesis of liturgy and sacred scriptures.

Authenticity in religion represents a vertical dimension to qualifying a religion, and it incorporates the definitions 1, 4 and 7. Authenticity is concerned with the degree of personal transformative power and intensity associated with religious experiences, and the internal realization of truths that are paradoxical and irrational. Authenticity challenges individual spiritual seekers, forcing them to move beyond belief and faith, so as to directly experience the spiritual dimension.

So you can see from the above discussion that legitimacy and authenticity are two very different dimensions that will produce, when used exclusively, two very different religious organizations. However, most religions in the world are actually a hybrid of both of these dimensions, although as I have said, a religious group will tend to emphasize one over the other. This is also true when examining the different groups and organizations of witchcraft and paganism. Some of these groups emphasize social integration and communication, others emphasize personal transformation and occultic practices. You can see that when individuals of a greater organization who don’t agree on which emphasis should be used attempt to communicate with each other, they will not only fail to agree, but that they will not usually be able to understand the other person’s perspective. Arguments that involve legitimacy pitted against authenticity will almost always fail unless someone has the enlightened perspective that both approaches are correct, and that there is no one true way.

This also leads us to consider the nature of legitimacy within religious organizations. It would seem that it is a kind of social consensus, an agreement between members of the group. This agreement becomes part of the accepted doctrine, and therefore, is never questioned. For instance, Catholics believe that the Pope’s authority, vested in him from God, is legitimate because he represents an unbroken line of reverent individuals going all the way back to the apostle Peter. The Pope is, therefore, a representative of the apostle Peter, and all of the vested belief in Jesus Christ, his apostles and the doctrines and liturgy of the Church has been mystically translated into his very person. Does the Pope really represent an unbroken line going back to the apostle Peter? Historians would probably disagree with that claim, since for a period of time there were two opposing Popes. There is, additionally, the question of the personal integrity of some Popes in history, which might negate the idea of continuity. Also, the church hierarchy has always been the arbiter of the selection and crowning of the Pope; it is not something intrinsic in the individual, but an important role. Yet it is the consensus amongst faithful Catholics, from the lay person all the way up to the Curia of Cardinals, that the Pope represents an unbroken line, whether or not historians are willing to agree, or even that others outside of the faith would agree to its significance.

We can examine this logic and also apply it to some specific considerations in the British Tradition of Witchcraft (BTW) as it is perceived and practiced in the U.S. I am an Alexandrian witch, properly trained and initiated through all three degrees. I possess my Book of Shadows as it was given to me to be copied by my teachers, and I have papers, rituals and other lore that was passed down to me by my teachers. I have also initiated a score of women over the three decades of my practice. So one could say that I am unquestionably a legitimate witch of the BTW. Right? Not necessarily. Because there is some dispute as to whether Alex Sanders was properly initiated through all three degrees in the Gardnerian tradition, and given the sanction to promote his own initiatory line, some Gardnerians believe that all Alexandrians are not legitimate members of the BTW. Some have even said that Alexandrians aren’t even witches! (Of course, we won’t even get into a discussion of whether or not my teachers, who broke their oaths and became fundamentalist preachers, would be considered posthumously illegitimate, and therefore, negate my claim to legitimacy.)

I have personally experienced Gardnerians who were unwilling to allow me to circle with them or to even talk with me about any of their secrets because I am not, in their definition, a properly initiated Gardnerian witch. I am treated as an outsider, or perhaps a better term, as some kind of “spiritual bastard.” These same Gardnerians will admit that I am kind of a witch and a pagan, but not a legitimate member of their lineage. I have been shunned and treated as if I were the love child of some base relative. Yet my Book of Shadows and my core teachings are nearly identical to the same material used by Gardnerians. There are minor differences between the different initiatory lines of the BTW, and the unique lore of my line is no different in that respect than any other. Still, I am treated by some as an outsider.

Does this treatment bother me? Not in the least! I am not affected by this condescending behavior because I don’t need the consensus of the greater witchcraft community to validate the fact that I am indeed witch and a ritual magician. However, it does bother some witches, and I have known Alexandrians who have gotten themselves a Garderian pedigree in order to be more legitimate in the eyes of the greater witchcraft community. Why does this circumstance bother some and not others? The reason is the distinction in the emphasis between legitimacy and authenticity. For me, the most important perspective is to be authentically a witch. It doesn’t matter to me what the overall social consensus of the witchcraft community thinks is right or proper. What is important to me is that the magick I practice and the liturgical rites that I perform are effective and fulfilling for me as a spiritual person. Also, the most important goal that I am seeking is to unify myself with the One - to be enlightened and illuminated through transcendental transformation. I do work with my community as a teacher, spiritual elder and leader, but the focus of my practice is on the individual rather than the group. One could easily say that my emphasis is almost wholly towards being authentic rather than legitimate, and ritual magick probably has had a powerful effect in pushing me in that direction.

When I read or hear individuals arguing about their initiatory legitimacy or its lack, I understand and know why such a controversy is occurring. It is, in fact, a dispute over social consensus and membership credentials. Is it a valid discussion or argument? That depends on one's overall perspective, but from the standpoint of the tradition of witchcraft, authenticity must outweigh legitimacy. There are some very important reasons why this is so.

An individual’s claim to be a witch should never rest exclusively on the integrity of their supposed initiatory lineage. My tattered and questionable lineage is a case in point. I have also known a few individuals who had impeccable initiatory lineages, but who were also either completely incompetent or totally corrupt. I have also known individuals who had no exoteric initiation in any kind of reputable organization, but who were probably some of the most powerful witches I have ever encountered. Having a pedigree is no guarantee that one is a competent and capable witch, in fact sometimes it would even seem to guarantee a certain degree of fallibility and hubris. As I have stated previously, initiation is not the same thing as transcendental transformation, but for someone who seeks to emphasize authenticity over legitimacy, it becomes critically important that both occur simultaneously.

In my humble opinion, a witch should be first and foremost measured by his or her ability to function as a witch. A proper initiation and the reception of the lore of a particular line may confer legitimacy, but can’t guarantee that one is even truly a witch. What this means is that a witch is a witch because they practice witchcraft and worship the old gods. Does this negate traditions, lineages and families of witchcraft? No, it doesn’t negate them, but it also doesn’t make them a requirement for being a witch, either.

When someone comes to me and says that they are a witch, then I have the right to test them in a magick circle. If they pass that test, then I must respect that they are indeed a witch. Do I break my oaths and share the lore that was handed down to me by my teachers? Of course not! But I will also not exclude them from circling or practicing magick with me. This also means that all of the lore that I know and possess that is not covered by my initiatory oath is available for sharing with that person. Not only that, but I will believe them if they tell me that they are a witch, and I will consider them a sister or a brother - perhaps of a different line than my own, but still kindred seekers on the path of magick and mystery. Eventually, perhaps the distinction of lineages, traditions and families will melt away in the practice of witchcraft, thus we will all be of one overall greater tradition, and we will also be individual seekers after the same goals. I look forward to that time, where authenticity will rule and legitimacy will be considered a quaint affectation.

Frater Barrabbas


  1. Really excellent discussion!

    This gives me some (further) perspective on the schism with which I was involved a few years ago--the issues involved were ones of both legitimacy and authenticity, in my opinion, according to the definitions you have given here. In the aftermath, the other group treated my group as if it was illegitimate, but possibly authentic; I'd have to say I think the other group and particular members of it are still neither. But that gets into particular group politics, with which I won't bore you...!?!

    The seven definitions of religion are a further interesting matter to consider. My own tendencies would be to take my own group as one involved mostly in 2, 4, 6, and 7, though I'm sure there are some in the group who view it as either 1 and/or 3, which is fair enough. But, as with Monty Python and the Holy Grail's Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch, "Five is right out!" ;)

  2. Hiya,
    This is one of the best explorations of this question I have seen. As an initiated witch of a specific order of the craft, My own view is expressed very well in your last two paragraphs.
    I would hope more folks would consider your words above, and understand that difference between recognition as a witch and recognition as a witch of ones particular order. Many tend to consider expressions of the latter imply dismissal of the former.

  3. @Chemalfait - stay tuned for part 2, coming up in the next day or so.