Do you have to believe anything to do magick?
This is one of the first questions people have when they find out about this stuff. And it's kind of a scary one. Is this a belief system? Do you have to be religious? Do you have to believe... you know... silly things?
The answer—as most are surprised to discover—is no. You don't have to believe anything. In fact, it's better not to believe anything. It just gets in the way—believe it or not!
What do I mean by that?
Religion—classic, organized religion—tells you what to believe. It gives you a set of dogmas and rote actions to follow. It promises you some kind of intangible future benefit if you follow these rules, and don't stray outside of the comfortable bounds of orthodoxy. It also tends to promise eternal punishment should you break the rules... or at least social ostracization. And within the realm of religion, I will have to include (shall we say) "unenlightened magick"—superstition, folk cures, low-level applications of numerology and astrology (for instance, for newspaper fortune-telling instead of Qabalistic analysis), and so on. I will also have to include not just explicitly organized religions like Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism and so on, but the ubiquitous "religions" of the modern world—for instance, the belief in the inevitability of capitalism, or communism, or the belief in universal equality, or technological progress, or whatever dogma happens to rule your local area of the world or the Web sites you habitually visit. That is, any set of beliefs or activity that is subscribed to purely on the basis of unexamined faith.
Magick, despite sounding like some woo-woo bullsh!t, is very different.
Magick is simply a series of techniques for achieving altered states of consciousness and using them to affect your reality. These techniques allow you to change your perceptions. By changing how you perceive your universe, it is quite possible to radically change the circumstances of your life. These methods, though in many cases extracted from religion (among other sources), are not bound by religious dogma, and are in fact subject to constant change by those using them (see chaos magic, for instance).
Instead of laying out dogma and commanding blind obedience, magick is completely experimental—and, at its best, empirical. I will not go so far as to glibly claim that it is "scientific," because it is not peer reviewed, and because it deals with the inner worlds of subjective experience rather than the outer words of objective materialism. However, it is indeed the parent tradition of science. Early magicians and alchemists like Paracelsus, John Dee, Giordiano Bruno, Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton laid the groundwork for science by consistently applying and refining magick's experimental methods for the control of nature, not to mention (perhaps even more importantly) magick's attitude of free thought and open inquiry into reality, instead of submission to Church dogma and control.
These early proto-scientists did not constrain their efforts to merely understanding the physical world, but applied their experiments to the spiritual world as well. And from them we inherit modern science itself—perhaps the crowning jewel of the Western Magical Tradition, the summum bonum of its Great Work, and a sword for the liberation of humanity from the shackles of fear and superstition that we were so long bound by. It is the way out of, as Carl Sagan called it, "the demon-haunted world."
I have no interest whatsoever in challenging science. In fact, in many ways I think that re-introducing magick to the scientific discourse would be a civilizational disaster—particularly in this anti-science, hostile political climate (at least in America, where I am writing this), when we need all the science and science education we can get.
However, I do work rather tirelessly to elucidate magick as its own tradition, on its own plane, as a system of causing change in human consciousness, of liberating human beings by allowing them to experimentally access their own brains and their own human potential in fascinating and potent new ways. And I will happily put magick on par or even above psychology, which in most cases falls far short of the ancient methods, and at any rate was directly inspired by them—Freud read deeply in the Kabbalah, and Jung and Reich were practically working occultists.
So no, you don't need to believe anything to attempt occult exercises. All you need is a willingness to try something weird within the realm of your own mind, and see what happens—just like any good scientist would. You do experiments, you get results, you record the results. You refine the methods and repeat. You discuss with others who have done the same experiments, and compare notes. And, for the love of God, you do not decide that whatever happened represents some kind of message from God.
Just so you clearly understand what I mean, let's take an example.
A very basic (and profoundly effective) occult technique, which comes to us from India, is pranayama, or yogic breathing. Broadly speaking, it involves deep, slow breathing from one nostril at a time, alternating nostrils between each breath. Adepts of pranayama (that is, anybody who's put in sincere practice for, let's say, a year at the rate of half an hour to an hour a day while keeping mindful of the usual strictures of vegetarian diet, staying in good health, good form and posture, and so on) will soon find that they can slow their breath down into ranges of 90 seconds to two minutes per single inhale/exhale. (Do not try this without adequate instruction and preparation. You can learn the basics of yoga in my Hardcore Meditation course.)
When this level of breath control is acheived, all kinds of interesting phenomena begin to occur. Bodily ecstasy is the least of it. Somebody practicing this type of breath control may soon begin to experience all kinds of "psychedelic" experiences that could easily find a home in the records of saints, prophets, shamans or magicians from time immemorial. A sense of ego death, enlightenment, transcendence or unity with the universe becomes quite easy to obtain on demand.
So (assuming we can get them to focus for long enough), let's take a handful of people from a few different belief systems and walks of life and have them try this experiment.
Let's start with a die-hard Christian fundamentalist. In all likelihood, they will interpret their experiences as the Holy Spirit, or the grace of Jesus, or angels, or something similar. A devout Muslim or Jew might report much the same divine contact experience, in the language of their own tradition.
A Buddhist, on the other hand, might report contacting "emptiness," and void, and perhaps various Buddhas, depending on their particular flavor of the Dharma. A Hindu would likely report all manner of psychedelic gods. A UFO enthusiast might start talking about aliens. A Satanist, by which I of course also mean a Christian fundamentalist, might become convinced that the Dark One Himself had come to make good on his invoice at last.
Yet a pure atheist might simply report that they had experienced a brain event, and if they had the neuroscience to do so, might even be able to tell us something profoundly interesting about the chemical changes in the brain that produced this event. In fact, they might go so far as to declare that such an experience actually disproves the claims of religion, by showing that holy visions are nothing but spasms of the brain, and they wouldn't necessarily be wrong—at least at the material level.
However, each of these people will have substantially had the exact same experience. They will have done something to their neurology which, for all intents and purposes, appears to replicate the kind of transcendent experiences that "holy" (or even particularly unholy!) people, saints, shamans and seers have been reporting throughout history.
Aha! Cries the atheist. I've seen through the trick! I've seen how they pull the rabbit out of the hat! It was a sham all along!
Aha! Cries the religious man. A rabbit! Let us worship this Rabbit, Son of Man, Lord of Lords, King of Kings! And moreover, let us worship I, Prophet of the Rabbit! (And lay waste to those who do not!)
Aha! Cries the magician. I know how to pull a rabbit out of a hat! Neat! Let's do that again!
Now, none of these individuals would have had this experience had they not attempted the experiment in the first place. But getting the result is only half the battle. The other half is in the interpretation of the result. As I've hinted at above, the interpretation you choose will determine your life going forward (and if you're a magician, you should maintain freedom of interpretation at all costs). A purely atheistic interpretation will put you right back in the unenchanted flatland of modern life (and that's no fun); a religious interpretation will make you a slave of your own hallucinations and superstition (and that's really not fun, particularly for the people you inevitably start ranting at); and a magical interpretation will allow you to keep repeating the experiment and probably enjoying your life a lot more as a result (which is a lot of fun).
This is what I mean when I say that magick is an experimental toolkit. It allows us to take the methods of religion, combine them with the aims of science, and transcend both. We get all the fun stuff (spiritual experiences, ecstasy, liberation) without all the dumb stuff (fundamentalism, dogma, stick-in-the-mud-atheism, and other prison cells constructed of belief).
And so in this sense, no—you don't need to believe anything to do magick. You just have to do it, and see what happens. (I give you everything you need in order to start getting results at Magick.Me, my online school for magick.)
May you long get results, and long enjoy them, and long stay free of the terrible burden of having to take them seriously.
In memoriam Stephen Hawking, Avatar of the Hawk-King, 1942-2018