Convert Not


Image via MorgueFile.

by Hunter MacKenzie

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

One of the basic tenets of Thelema that distinguishes it from most other systems of spirituality is the absence of structured provisions for evangelism and conversion of others. Not only is there no push to convert nonbelievers but there are specific injunctions against doing so. Rather than amassing strength by increasing numbers, the philosophy is inherently geared toward the individual and personal freedom; some astute historians point out that this was probably influenced a great deal by Thelema’s chief prophet Aleister Crowley’s general tendency to flout tradition and societal mores, as well as his literary familiarity with French priest and occultist Rabelais. Others believe that ”Do what thou wilt” sprang strictly from Crowley’s transcript of the Book of the Law as dictated by the entity Aiwass. It is likely that any number of diverse sources influenced the development of Thelemic philosophy, so it’s not my intention to attempt to catalog them here. What I intend to do is explore the roots and effects of this curious non-conversion principle.

“Success is thy proof: argue not; convert not…” We may help others to “strike off their own fetters” but Thelema needs no apologists or evangelists. It speaks for itself.

Most religions – and many spiritual traditions which haven’t been considered formal religions – encourage the practice of converting non-believers. It may be called ”witnessing” or ”evangelism” or  “missions” or any of a host of other euphemisms. Recently, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Pratt called it ”indoctrination” when he ruled against former Watergate conspirator Charles ”Tex” Colson’s Christian prison ministry which rewarded prisoners for participating in the program.

In many cases, what it amounts to is arm-twisting and coercion. Anyone who has seen Ticket to Heaven or has even a passing familiarity with the stages of brainwashing in a cult setting can recognize similarities to the process of bringing new converts into the fold in a church or mosque – or the process of socialization within the school system, for that matter. The principles are the same in each case: restrict the newcomer’s contact with the old familiar environment, replace the old beliefs and ways of behaving with those espoused by the group, and enforce the new beliefs with a system of rewards and punishments until the training takes sufficient hold on the convert’s mind to become self-perpetuating and resistant to outside influence. The power of the group mind cannot be underestimated; consider George Orwell’s 1984, in which constant scrutiny not only by the government but also by one’s peers is utilized to enforce certain behaviors and extirpate others.

To examine the Christian approach to conversion for a moment, consider this. Christ exhorts his followers to ”Love thy neighbor as thyself.” Most Christians are familiar with this passage, yet many have no qualms about harassing neighbors who decline invitations to attend their particular church. Why would a religion that aspires to treat one’s fellow man with kindness and respect be so doggedly determined to undermine that same fellow man’s own belief system? Christians point to biblical passages referred to as the ”Great Commission,” charging them with the duty to ”go and teach all nations.” For Christians, this may provide direction and (depending upon how zealously it is interpreted) also grant license to consider anyone not of the same faith to be an unwashed heathen whose soul is up for grabs. From a more secular interpersonal and diplomatic perspective, however, it’s just plain rude, intrusive, and disrespectful. It’s akin to knocking on someone’s door and criticizing them for reading science fiction because you prefer cozy armchair mysteries. It’s not too far from saying, ”You don’t know any better, so let me tell you what to think.” It’s the sort of slap in the face that’s kept holy wars going for well over the last 2,000 years.

Given how much harm has been done by the well-meaning concept of bringing enlightenment to the benighted savages of the world, why does one group after another continue to aggressively pursue new converts?

Of course, holy wars aren’t the only result of militant evangelism. There’s also the psychological damage, eradication of cultural heritage, and environmental and economic wreckage wrought when one group decides to invade another’s territory for the purpose of gaining new followers.

Given how much harm has been done by the well-meaning concept of bringing enlightenment to the benighted savages of the world, why does one group after another continue to aggressively pursue new converts?

One likely reason is very simple: to have an orderly society, it is necessary to impose rules which will be followed. Civil laws can (and are) frequently broken, disregarded, amended or subverted. But laws rooted in what the population perceives as morality – which is often simply religion cloaked in secular terminology – tend to be supported and obeyed more stringently. In other words, laws tend to be more effective when the State taps into the people’s religious tendencies. Statistically, the religion with the greater number of followers is more likely to wield greater influence on the State (even if the State is not officially a theocracy). Even in a nation which claims to support religious freedom, it’s more likely that the populist religions will be given greater leeway and tolerance. This means that it’s in the interest of each religion to have as many followers as possible, whether they’re gained by conversion, reproduction, or political maneuvers. To propagate one’s own religion, it is vital to have numbers. This is especially crucial in a democratic society where the majority is allowed to make the rules for everyone else.

Considering all this, one might begin to question the wisdom of not attempting to win new converts.

One reason for avoiding such action is spelled out very clearly in the Book of the Law: “Success is thy proof: argue not; convert not; talk not over much!” (AL III:42) You can’t get much clearer than that. However, doing or not doing something purely because of what one particular passage of the Book of the Law says is not much better than the evangelizing Christians who pick and choose parts of their own bible they prefer to live by, eschewing common sense or historical context. Aside from this, it should be clear that the principles of Thelema are inimical to the very idea of dogma.

Circumstances may arise where you are asked for assistance; otherwise, the working of your Will very likely does not involve interference with the Will of another. Make no mistake: assistance or advice, when it is not requested, is interference.

“Success is thy proof.” This suggests that Thelema needs no apologists, no evangelists; it speaks for itself. Its efficacy is clear enough for those possessed of the constitution and mental disposition suitable for practicing the Law. When a belief system works, coercion is unnecessary.

Crowley himself favored promulgating the Law of Thelema, which was one thing that angered his contemporaries among practitioners of ceremonial magick; they were in the habit of keeping all their secrets very closely guarded, and disapproved of his speaking and writing so openly. He generally greeted people in conversation and letters with ”Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law,” a custom still carried on among many Thelemites today in much the same spirit that many Wiccans use ”Blessed Be” to close their own correspondence.

Crowley once wrote to his magickal son that openly espousing the precepts of Thelema would naturally stimulate discussion. He anticipated (maybe even hoped) that it might also elicit animosity, thus providing an excellent opportunity to speak to people about the Law. He remained mindful of the injunction to ”convert not,” but added (in the same letter), ”This is not any bar to an explanation of the Law. We may aid men to strike off their own fetters.” However, he then went on to outline a number of detailed  suggestions for spreading the word of the Law, which is probably the closest anyone has come to a blueprint for Thelemic evangelism.

It must be borne in mind, however, that Crowley believed it was his personal duty to make the Law available to all; this was his Will, in the strictest Thelemic sense. It does not necessarily follow that everyone else’s Will (or even anyone else’s Will) might include that particular task. If you believe ”Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law” and ”Every man and every woman is a star,” then your obligation – your only obligation – is to discover and carry out your own Will. You are not required to ”save” anyone, to win others over to the cause or to explain your beliefs. It is certainly true that circumstances may arise where you are asked for assistance, or where, upon due consideration of the situation, you may find that it is within your Will to share what you know. Otherwise, the working of your Will very likely does not involve interference with the Will of another. (And make no mistake: assistance or advice, when it is not requested, is interference.)

Logically, one might expect that a philosophy so neutral on the subject of attracting converts would not have a large following. The Book of the Law states, in fact, ”Let my servants be few and secret; they shall rule the many and the known.” (AL I:10) However, humans are driven to look after their own interests. And despite what some seem to think, pursuing one’s own Will does not necessarily prevent one from exploring other spiritual paths at the same time;  Will is intended to be discovered and worked out by each individual for themselves. A philosophy which has the Will of the individual as its cornerstone naturally would not prohibit the exploration of alternative methods any more than it would endorse the coercion of others into a rigidly-structured belief system. In a philosophy such as this, the freedom of the individual remains paramount against any temptation to hide behind the ”safety of numbers.”

That being the case, I imagine that people will be engaged in working out their own Wills long after many of today’s religions have begun to fade. Whether people join a particular order or even identify themselves as Thelemites is not especially relevant; what really matters is that each person is respected enough to be entrusted with their own Great Work. After all, that which is chosen of one’s own free will endures in the mind and soul far longer than the most strictly enforced dogma.

 For pure will, unassuaged of purpose, delivered from the lust of result, is every way perfect. (AL I:44)


© Copyright 2006 by Hunter MacKenzie. Republished 2007, 2011, 2015.

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