What is it about the practice of magic that makes fundamentalists condemn it so?
Beyond the obvious fact that humans often denounce what they do not understand, there is also the undisputed fact that magical practice flies directly in the face of the fundamentalist’s agenda: to proselytize, to convert, to persuade as many people as possible to think the same way, pray the same prayers, worship the same deity, to attend the same churches, listen to the same pastors, and fill the same coffers. For centuries, Western theocrats have based their agenda on Constantine’s fourth-century approach: One Emperor, One Empire, One God, One Religion. One unified bureaucracy ruling it all. One particular set of Christian beliefs was exalted and all others condemned. Deviation was discouraged, to put it mildly. Other forms of worship were exiled, died out, or went underground. This was the religious reality of the West for centuries until cracks started to appear in the theological door, nailed into place by Luther’s hammer.
New Christian sects soon flourished, but most also embraced Constantine’s approach: there was one right set of beliefs and all others were wrong. One right way to worship. Each sect taught that it alone had the One True Way, and all other sects were deceived, blinkered, misinformed, or bound for hell. Adherents were taught that following the instructions of the church (whichever sect it happened to be) would result in happiness and salvation. Following a different church could result in damnation and eternal misery. Such was the kindling that sparked religious conflicts such as the 30 years War and the Inquisition.
With the Renaissance came a resurgence in classical knowledge and philosophy. The Age of Reason and the Age of Enlightenment followed and built on the scientific advancements of preceding ages. In ways that had never been previously possible, more and more people began to examine their deepest-held beliefs concerning God, religion, and humanity’s relationship to the Divine. Influential thinkers of the day began an intellectual revolution against the yoke of religious orthodoxy—sometimes quietly, sometimes vociferously. As evidenced by such documents as Pope Leo XIII’s “Human Genus: Against Freemasonry and Spirit of the Age” (1884), which condemned such ideas as “democracy”(!)—power over individual human lives gradually slipped away from the church, which kicked and screamed at every lost bit of control and authority.
It was against this backdrop that the 19th century “Occult revival” was born, ushering in a proliferation of esoteric societies and such thinkers as Eliphas Levi, Helena Blavatsky, W. Wynn Westcott, S.L. Mathers, Aleister Crowley, Arthur Edward Waite and others. At the heart of this revival was the study of magic; a yearning for liberation of the human spirit through arcane knowledge.
Organized religion tends to limit access to the supernatural world within the bulwark of a formalized theology, and the faithful are strongly encouraged to remain within that framework. In magic, however, the individual is encouraged to experience the supernatural realms for him or herself. While religion often focuses on the group experience, group-think and group interdependence, usually with a single religious leader or small group of leaders shepherding their flock, magic emphasizes the individual experience, independent thought, and belief that is based on personal revelation of the Divine.
However, the advantages of group work are many. Mystery schools past and present are founded by individuals motivated by any number of reasons, but the best are usually inspired to teach, whether by inner planes contacts or divine muse, and to offer a useful curriculum of esoteric work that can guide the student step by-step through the magical/alchemical process of purification, consecration, and union. To be an Initiate means that one is accepted into an inner circle whose teachings and rituals are meaningful only to other members of the group who share this common experience. Admittance to such a group confers a sense of fellowship and belonging, of receiving arcane information, and of having been uplifted through the disclosure of divinely inspired wisdom.
This does not mean that the magician simply trades in one congregation for another. A magical order is not a religion and is not designed to take the place of religion, although religious symbolism is often used in ceremonies as a catalyst to stimulate the alchemical process of self-evolution. The rite of initiation is meant to purify the candidate and prepare him or her to receive the teachings of the group, which can aid and support one’s personal process of illumination.
Ultimately, however, magic is a process of liberation. The Initiate is always in control of his or her own destiny. Spiritual attainment, whether within or without a magical group, still depends on the individual will, perseverance, merits, and character of the student.