The Case for Gnosticism, Part 9: My Most Controversial Interviews
This is part of an ongoing series of blogs that elaborate the ideas in my book God Reconsidered: Searching for Truth in the Battle Between Atheism and Religion, with more material posted at www.GodReconsidered.com. Gnosticism was a form of Christianity that was the primary rival to what became the Catholic faction during the first centuries after Jesus’ death. Gnostics differed in the details of their beliefs, but most claimed to have achieved “gnosis,” insight that the Creator of the world was not benevolent, accompanied by a mystical personal connection to a transcendental High God. Jesus was not viewed as a savior of people from sin, but the liberator of souls through enlightenment that would bring inner peace in this world and an afterlife in the presence of the divine. It has been undergoing a revival ever since many of its scriptures (known as the Nag Hammadi texts) were discovered in Egypt 1945 (the year before the Dead Sea Scrolls). Gnosticism has some powerful ideas that I believe make it superior to philosophical alternatives.
For those who want to follow the creation of a logical argument for the importance and relevance today of Gnosticism, these were the subjects of the prior blogs:
*Case 1 was an introduction to the central ideas of early Gnostic groups.
*Case 2 addressed notions popular among today’s New Agers that there is no objective reality and that we are responsible for creating everything that happens to us (understanding why their case is weak should be the foundation for a search for truth).
*Case 3 explained why it is difficult for any mainstream religion, East or West, to provide a sensible rationale for why we were created, given the high early mortality rate until the past century, the inequalities inherent in the combination of genetics and early family life, and the chaos of the material world that interferes with any supposedly divine plan for any mortal.
*Case 4 showed why the evidence for survival of the individual soul into an afterlife is very strong, contrary to what anti-religious skeptics assert (and details why I don’t believe in reincarnation, although some Gnostic groups did).
*Case 5 contrasted Gnosticism with orthodox Christianity (whose doctrines I regard as a heresy from Jesus’ teachings, invented hundreds of years after his death and not supported by the New Testament).
*Case 6, provided my Gnostic theory for so-called alien abductions (a phenomenon that needs to be taken seriously, as those who have studied it objectively recognize): https://brevity.news/the-case-for-gnosticism-part-6-a-gnostic-viewpoint-on-alien-abductions/) (blog 6 also includes links to the prior five).
*Case 7, was the story of an individual modern Gnostic’s journey in the words of my fellow mystic Alex Rivera: https://brevity.news/the-case-for-gnosticism-part-7-manifestation-of-the-living-gnosis-alex-rivera/ (I had previously included personal experiences like this in an appendix to my blogs, but his story was long and I needed more time to prepare for the next one, so I turned it into the entire post).
*Case 8 explained why the pioneering psychologist Carl Jung should be viewed as a type of modern Gnostic: https://brevity.news/the-case-for-gnosticism-part-8-carl-jung-and-gnosticism/
I have also provided more details about these topics and the themes of the book in media interviews, including four appearances on the national radio call-in talk show “Coast to Coast AM.” But by far my most in-depth discussions have been featured in an ongoing series on the AeonByte podcast www.thegodabovegod.com (search “scott smith aeonbyte” on Youtube for the first 10 as of March 2019, including the Heretics Anonymous Episode 8, or use the links embedded below). I tried to talk about different issues each time, sometimes on a particular theme, so regular listeners wouldn’t get bored. In the process, I was forced to rethink my positions as they were challenged and my views evolved on some issues (though nothing fundamental from what I wrote in the book). These interviews generally received a positive reaction from the audience, as measured by the comments on Youtube and the ratio of the thumbs up or down (they are also posted on iTunes and elsewhere, but these don’t allow ratings or comments). Three stood out for the controversy they generated:
Mormonism and Gnosticism (May 2016)
It isn’t hard to understand why this had the worst response, since Mormonism is the most important and radical Christian heresy since early Gnosticism and it has Gnostic aspects, which were the subject of this interview. Still, the overall response was favorable, with 38 positive reactions vs. 13 negative (a ratio of 3:1).
Of the 53 comments, these ranged from “that was amazingly GOOD!” to “it doesn’t sound like he’s up to date on the cult.” Some admitted they only listened to the beginning and others apparently didn’t listen very carefully or at all. Half of the discussions had to do with other topics I had only touched on in passing. One listener raged that Christianity was the bad result of Zealot Messianism and Gnostic pacifism, that the Cathars couldn’t be Gnostic because they supposedly believed reincarnation was due to personal sin (not because the Demiurge forced them into bodies), and that Carl Jung should not be considered a Gnostic (you can read my answers if these subjects are of interest).
The other half were the attacks I had expected from evangelical Christians. For the record, I was Mormon from childhood until my gnosis experience in 1990 at age 39. My family and friends remain devout Latter-day Saints (LDS), as they prefer to be called, so I am familiar with what’s happening in the church today (LDS comes from the formal name, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; in early Christianity, “saint” simply designated believers in Jesus as the savior). I went on a mission to Germany 19-20, participated in the temple rituals, held local leadership positions, and published books on the faith. I became very familiar with the Christian fundamentalist criticisms of the church and did original research, which I presented at many sessions of the annual Sunstone Symposium in Salt Lake City. I also was a guest lecturer at UCLA for many years on why there was scientific validity to the Book of Mormon claim that people from the Middle East came to the Americas.
After converting to Gnosticism in 2005 (which I didn’t discover until 15 years after my gnosis), I made a presentation the following year at Sunstone on Gnostic insights into the creator of this world (Bishops Stephan Hoeller and Lance Owens of Ecclesia Gnostica also spoke about Gnosticism and Mormonism at Sunstone a few years earlier). For those who are interested, I can email the 10-page text on request: email@example.com. The scholarly response was given by a well-known Gnostic priestess who had been LDS, was excommunicated, but a few years ago returned to the Mormon fold because she found her congregation had become much more loving.
My wife, Sandra Wells, a devout pagan who has participated in some of my AeonByte interviews, has also been very impressed with my family and other members she has known, since they really try to live according to the Mormon interpretation of Jesus’ teachings. You wouldn’t know this from some of the comments in reaction to this interview or from the propaganda from the orthodox Christians. Sandra has also felt “the spirit” at LDS funerals and this is one of the few truly living religions in which supernatural manifestations are common among members. Of course, fundamentalist Christians think it’s all the work of the devil, which is what they say about similar things among Catholics (meantime, there is little evidence that mainstream Christianity is either true or imbued with any kind of divine energy, whether manifested through healings or other miracles).
There are many things I admire about the bold and innovative thinking of the early leaders of Mormonism. I think they were onto something when they stated that spirits started as primordial consciousness, which other entities (“the gods”) developed into full souls. However, I think the evidence is clearly contrary to the iLDS dea that sending them into bodies was a good idea. Coupled with the belief the Jehovah was the creator of this world, I think this shows that Mormon prophets were deceived, like leaders of other non-Gnostic philosophies. It’s my current view that the LDS belief that souls were sent into this world for a divine purpose personalizes what is probably a natural process in which primitive consciousness craves physical incarnation.
As Harold Bloom discussed in The American Religion, Mormonism has a number of Gnostic ideas, such as the belief in the opportunity for direct revelation to every individual by God of Truth and that we each have god-like aspects and potential. In Gnosticism, this is the spark of divinity within, while in Mormonism there is a goal of becoming a literal god with one’s own planet to people. Temple rituals are about the afterlife the emphasis on ritual is similar to that of the early Gnostic, like the Cathar consolamentum and the Valentinian bridal chamber, Simon Magus’ magic practices, chanting, and the metaphorical interpretation of the Eucharist as recognizing our divine essence and potential. Bloom also commented that founder Joseph Smith was one of the few religious leaders who was capable of enabling those in his presence to see his visions—some of those who had bitter partings with him over doctrines continued to insist they had seen the angels who visited him.
Those who would like to know more about the religion’s brilliant philosophy would enjoy Michael Quinn’s Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, Margaret and Paul Toscano’s Strangers in Paradox, Sterling McMurrin’s The Philosophical Foundations of Mormon Theology and Mark Koltko-Rivera’s The Rise of the Mormons. The best objective and sympathetic biography of the founder is Richard Bushman’s Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling.
One of the reasons I always took a jaundiced view of mainstream Christianity before I became Gnostic was because Mormons dissent on a fair amount of orthodox theology, with good reason. For example, they argue that the New Testament does not teach that all one needs to do to be saved is to accept Jesus as savior, since Mormons point to other scriptures that state that “good works” are also essential. They do accept the doctrine of the atonement, even though it is also not to be found in the Bible. Mormonism doesn’t believe even the worst mortals will go to the traditional notion of hell (though a very few will because they were among the anointed and then betrayed God). They envision three levels of heaven, which Paul alluded to, and some LDS prophets taught that there is an opportunity for everyone to make spiritual progress in the hereafter. Mormons further deny the traditional view of the Trinity, which is not supported by scripture, and understand the Godhead instead as three separate beings (it will surprise most modern Christians that the Trinity was an invention by Catholic Church councils hundreds of years after Jesus’ death).
According to one of the evangelicals who responded to the interview, Jerald and Sandra Tanner have been the saviors of former Mormons, documenting the evils of the religion. I’m very familiar with them and their work and I pointed out its many errors. But their arguments are based on a foundation of the fact that they are traditional Christians, with all the baggage that implies. As Bart Ehrman documented in Jesus Interrupted, no one who takes a close and objective look at the New Testament can take it as a record of fact, considering how many major contradictions there are. Anyone who thinks Mormonism has more weaknesses than mainstream Christianity has not paid attention to biblical scholarship.
The subject of the interview was Mormon and Gnostic philosophy compared, so I didn’t claim members were perfect. And while I have my own political and cultural criticisms of the church, I pointed out that assertions like Mormons suffer from high rates of mental illness are confusing Utah’s mixed population with the overall global church. The claim that “the cult is dying” because there are more baptism of children than converts is incorrect: in 2017, 106,771 children were born into LDS families and many of them will become baptized members when they turn 8 (which Freud thought was about the time they know right from wrong). But there were 233,729 converts that year, with a total membership of 16,118,169. If one wants to find a shrinking cult, just look at the declining attendance at Christian churches.
Gnosticism and Daily Life in the 21st Century (Halloween 2016)
The negative reaction to this one surprised me, since the theme was how to use Gnostic principles to guide one in living a life in which one is at peace and does good to others. There were, however, 53 positive ratings and 13 negative for a ratio of 4.1, with individual responses ranging from “amazingly thought-provoking” to “I wasted 1 hr of my life listening to a business journo with nothing to say.”
There were an astonishing 105 comments (twice the normal), although many were by me in response. I noticed some unusual patterns with some of the critics. One pronounced me “pro-gun, pro-military and Jesus x100,” another claimed I believed in the New Age Secret, the scam that insists that if you just believe something completely, it will come to you. They also seemed to know each other and one told his friends that I was a Mormon. I checked their names and quickly realized these were your archetypal fake-skeptics about anything they think is supernatural. I addressed the fact that their leaders in the Skeptics Society and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry use arguments that can be easily refuted by giving examples in my first three chapters of God Reconsidered: the experiments that prove beyond any serious doubt that telepathy exists; that there is plenty of hard evidence for large numbers of credible witnesses in certain UFO incidents; and that the theories that the militant skeptics put forth to try to explain away near-death experiences don’t make scientific sense.
What these pseudo-intellectuals typically do (since they don’t actually know the science themselves) is cite some professor who says, for example, there is no evidence for ESP. Like conservative Catholics who won’t dare read something on the list of banned books, the fanboys simply take the word of their materialist authority figures. It’s almost impossible to get them to even read my opening chapter on the subject, which is largely based on Dr. Dean Radin’s The Conscious Universe. One who did, then posted a hatchet job on Radin’s Supernormal, which appeared in a skeptical publication. I asked Radin to respond and when I posted it, this lay skeptic did not answer and will no doubt continue to maintain his faith in his intellectual betters, even when they are exposed as amateurs or liars: https://noetic.org/blog/missing-both-the-forest-and-the-trees/.
Some other good references on these issues: Michael Schmicker’s Best Evidence, Scott Rogo’s Psychic Breakthroughs Today, and the appendix of Michael Crichton’s Travels. We’re planning to do an entire Heretics Anonymous show on Halloween 2019 what’s wrong with the new militant atheism and irrational scientism (part of the AeonByte podcast offerings).
All this was reaction rather weird, with most of my discussion on how to be a good person in this world, even while not being of it, as Jesus taught. But one listener was upset over a comment I made in passing expressing skepticism about reincarnation (see my responses to him and blog 4, above), as well as one who raged about my criticism of that intellectual sacred cow, Mahayana Buddhism (I have the chapter form the book posted on the website for those who don’t think I’ve done my homework and plan to go into more detail in and interviews later this year or next).
One commentator at least was on-topic, with a discussion about the comparative lifestyles of hunter-gatherers. I don’t disagree that there were attractive aspects, but I would refer anyone who thinks this is something that would solve many of our modern problems to Yuval Harari’s Origins, about early human prehistory.
A Gnostic View of UFOs, Ghosts, and Psychics (Halloween 2017)
I’ve been doing the Halloween AeonByte podcast since 2014 and for the second time I brought on my wife, Sandra Wells (who was also, ironically, with me on the 2015Halloween show, which was our second highest-rated show with a ratio of 25.5:1 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=evTvYNqWAQg&t=681s). This received 42 thumbs up and 6 thumbs down, a positive ratio of 7.
We talked about many subjects, from my theory of who is abducting humans under the guise of being aliens to our UFO encounters.
Of the 58 comments, almost all were about the first half hour, in which she told the full and dramatic story of how she became engaged in ceremonial magic (which she had only summarized in 2015). This was, as she explained, done for healing her emotional wounds and for the health of her parents, but some critics insisted any ritual work would be black magic. I pointed out that Simon Magus, one of the earliest Gnostic leaders, was, as his name implies, a magician, and magic has been linked to a variety of personal development processes, which Dean Radin discusses in Real Magic. Broadly defined, religious rituals, from the Catholic Eucharist to Tibetan Buddhist mural-making, are magical practices. So those Gnostics who chanted mysterious sounds and did sacred dances were doing magic. I should also mention that Sandra shared the stage with Stephan Hoeller of Ecclesia Gnostica to discuss her experiences, so these experiences are well within the Gnostic tradition.
Coming to the end of the comments, there was a burst of anti-Semitism from many of these same critics, since she is ethnically Jewish. But inexplicably they insisted she was using practices from the Kabbalah, even though she never mentioned it and has never used it in her practices. Of course, many of the earliest Gnostics were Jewish and scholar David Brakke has said that what convinced him that they must have had some genuine mystical experience, was their fervent belief the Jehovah was the evil Creator, an idea otherwise unthinkable for a Jew of the time.
Sandra, as she made clear, is a devout pagan and was well-networked in that community in Los Angeles. She attempted to find magicians with real power for years and was always disappointed. As she explained, she was only the “vessel” in these operations with her teacher, who was the primary Magician, trained by members of the Golden Dawn in London (she prefers not to name him, but I knew him and of his stature in the pagan community as a man of real magical power). When he died, she could not find anyone to replace him for that role. But she also wasn’t eager to restart—it was almost a full-time and exhausting job. She mentioned that, based on her knowledge of the community, that there weren’t any living magicians (she and I also were assigned by Fate magazine to test psychics and didn’t find many with impressive skills, but a good deal of the public obviously believes they do and they may even be sincere). Some readers were angry that she was denying the claims of others to be able to do real magic, but it was not clear if they or anyone they knew could actually bring down the Powers, as she described in her experiences.
And, as she warned, magic is not to be trifled with. Her experiences were frightening. If anyone wants to try this, be forewarned.
Other AeonByte shows I have been on:
AB 1 The Failure of Atheism and Theism (Halloween 2014)
AB 2 Talking to Spirits in Gnosticism (April 2015)
AB 6 Archons and the Nature of Good and Evil (April 2017)
AB 8 Scott and Christian on Gnosticism, God, and the Meaning of Life (July 2018)
AB 9 Scott and Christian on A Gnostic View of Death, Afterlife, and Embodiment (Halloween 2018)
Heretics Anonymous Episode 8 (March 2019)
Scott and Chris in a group discussion on Modern Gnosticism