On a bright summer Sunday morning a few months ago, the First Baptists of the Texas suburb where I make my home streamed into three different parking lots flanking their soaring modernist Church. Off-duty cops directing traffic stopped us for a white-haired, white-skinned couple to cross the street from overflow parking in the high school lot kitty-corner from the church. Apparently these Christians needed more than just thoughts and prayers to see them safely over a busy city street on their way to worship. Once they had found their deliverance unharmed to the other side of the road from shepherds in blue with orange safety vests, we were permitted to hurry on once more to our family mindfulness, meditation, and parenting class at the local Brahma Kumaris Center.
Entering the BK World
Brahma Kumaris (BK) bills itself as a worldwide “spiritual organization” which teaches the inherent goodness of all people and practical meditation methods designed to help individuals understand their own inner strengths and certain so-called “universal truths.” As we entered the two-story brick building, we walked directly from the morning summer sunshine and bustle of a major metropolitan suburb into a soothing shmeer of a world in soft white, cream, and beige, with gentle new-age music playing and a bevy of smiling, helpful Indian people all wearing loose, flowing clothing in pristine white. As their sole splash of rich color, each wore a gold pin affixed over their breast with the name and logo of the BK movement—a pinpoint of white light representing both the human soul and the Great Soul or God, with rays similar to the Japanese Rising Sun Flag emanating outward from it—in red.
After introductions, sign in, and registration, we were promptly shunted off to what looked like a bookstore area sporting shelves lined with music selections, kids activity books, and scores of volumes in English, Spanish, Hindi, and Gujarati apparently offering the translated and collected wisdom of Brahma Kumaris. My children, of course, manifested great excitement at the scores of colorful volumes, a string of impromptu “wants” suddenly springing to their pleading lips. Mercifully, our BK minders soon ushered us upstairs, where we were met by four matronly Indian women in a large mediation space-cum-lecture hall. Here our two young daughters would stay for their portion of the two-hour class, imagining their respective perfect worlds and drawing their visions in pencil and crayon. But first, a short guided meditation with parents present would serve to kick things off.
As we all sat down on rubberized meditation mats in a semi-circle around a plastic lotus flower with an electronic tea light flickering in its center, the three oldest of the ladies took their positions facing us. One of these women, the apparent leader of this and the grown-ups session soon to follow downstairs, motioned to the youngest member of the cohort, who was manning a small CD player atop a table by the wall, to fire up the recording. A new strain of newage (that’s my father’s term for this much maligned style of music; rhymes with sewage) burbled up, overlaid with a dulcet female voice speaking in a British accent. The disembodied female instructed us all to imagine a better world, one of peace and virtue, and asked us to consider what we could do to help make the real world more like the one we imagined.
Following the meditation, the gray-haired leader asked our children what they had imagined as their perfect worlds. Of course, my oldest daughter had thought of an earth made entirely from candy, with an ice-cream ocean in which swam only Swedish Fish gummy candies, where the clouds were cotton candy, the parents gingerbread men and women, and our two daughters had become “sour kids,” by which was meant the Sour Patch Kids candies everybody loves to pucker up over. I got the distinct impression that little Pickle’s (that’s our nickname for our oldest) vision was a little too carnal for the leader’s tastes, but she and the others all laughed with pleasant bemusement nonetheless, encouraging our girls to draw and color their pictures, while we adults rose and descended the stairs to a roughly identical lecture/mediation hall for the grown-up portion of the parenting class which would be taught by the white-haired woman and her younger companion.
The walls of both lecture/meditation spaces fairly groaned beneath the weight of posters depicting aspects of the BK belief system. Ones that stood out to me included the depiction of the All Father, imagined as a singular point of emanating light, and the Kalpa Tree or World Tree, where the branches bear among them the symbols of other world religions like Christianity (the Cross), Buddhism (Chakra Wheel), Hinduism (Om Character), and Islam (Crescent Moon), but near the base of the trunk is to be found the BK symbol. Despite the apparent message in this graphic about the foundational place of the BK belief system in relation to other major world religions, a funny thing happened when I asked about the ultimate religious character of the group and whether it was predominantly based in Hinduism, Jainism, or Sikhism (I had seen influences from all three) or was intended as a generalized Indic amalgam. The white-haired woman denied that BK was a religion at all, but alleged instead that it represents a system of spirituality prior to and running beneath religions, with the purpose of uncovering original truths of supposed universal significance and application.
What no one discussed during our session was that BKs also believe in a kind of Millenarian doctrine of cycles of time and that we’re currently inhabiting the final such cycle, the so-called Confluence Age, which will soon end in a cataclysmic, cathartic apocalypse since human civilization is unsustainable both in terms of its environmental impact and seemingly unending cultural conflict. Another unmentioned belief is that all dedicated BKs should remain entirely celibate in life, whether or not they are married. In 1930s north-western India where the movement began, quickly taking on a predominantly female leadership, for a dutiful wife convert to suddenly go all Lysistrata was probably a liberating anti-patriarchal idea, but the subsequent BK movement has received harsh criticism for charges of breaking up marriages and splitting apart families. One intriguing agent in this alleged centrifugal force breaking families wide open is the fact that BKs believe they can eat only sattvic food prepared by themselves or other BKs, meaning that converts can no longer share meals with non-members so long as it is the non-members who do the cooking. As a result, BK converts often refuse to eat even their own, non-member, mothers’ cooking. Again, none of this was mentioned during our session.
The Dark Underbelly of a New-Age Mindfulness Movement
Once the mindful parenting course began with just myself and my wife as attendees—the two instructors claimed other families had registered but simply did not show—we were treated to a ponderously slow slideshow led by the younger woman, while the older sat in the audience like us. The younger woman had just recently completed some training or other, the older one said, and would therefore be given a chance to show her stuff and receive feedback from her elder colleague.
The show began with the question: “What are two values that you believe could positively change the world if more people were to adopt them? How would the world look if everyone lived by those two values?” The older woman retrieved a cell phone and put on some more soothing newage for us to listen to as we contemplated our answers. Neither my wife nor myself needed any real amount of time to consider our responses, but then again no one asked us if we required time, so we were stuck waiting patiently in somewhat uncomfortable silence for the artificially drawn-out pause.
When it came time to share our responses, my wife went first, telling the two instructors that the world could be a better place if more people adopted the values of curiosity and compassion because, that way, individuals would be more curious to learn about and seek to understand one another, while helping out in whatever ways they can. At this point, I’m replaying in my head the scene from Rodney Dangerfield’s 1986 comedy Back to School where the wacko history professor played by Pentecostal-preacher-turned-comedian Sam Kinison praises Dangerfield’s right-wing, anti-communist rhetoric on the subject of the Korean Conflict by saying through clinched teeth: “Good answer. Good answer. I like the way you think.” Here I was with my years of religious studies and moral philosophy under my belt, and my wife was positively showing me up.
When asked for my own answer, I somewhat sheepishly shared that the world could be a better place if more people accepted and lived by the values of universal sovereignty of will and bodily autonomy, adding quickly that all human conflict seems to involve as an essential ingredient one person or group of people seeking to exercise will over others and, in so doing, usually violating others’ physical persons in some way. Now here’s where things get interesting.
The white-haired instructor thought for a moment, and then responded by saying something to the effect of:
“That’s interesting. Sovereignty of will and bodily autonomy, you call it? Because we don’t even have sovereignty over the way our sense perceptions impact our bodies. We can’t even look at a dozen delicious donuts and say to ourselves ‘I know they are bad for my body, so I won’t eat one’ without feeling a powerful pull to do just that. We aren’t even sovereign over our own impulses to that degree.”
This failure of will, she maintained, formed much of the point of turning to the spirituality offered by Brahma Kumaris to begin with: to the meditation, the mindfulness, the community, and the values of purity they espouse. And suddenly, I flashed on two separate considerations.
First, in a lecture I delivered back in October of 2017 (7:48 time mark, but sadly the video is no longer publicly available), I spoke of a so-called “Spiritual Warfare” book of Christian “wisdom” written by one Robert Don Hughes and pithily entitled Satan’s Whispers: Breaking the Lies that Bind. In that book, Chapter 9 bears the title “Just this Once — You Deserve a Break Today!” and carries the description:
“This is the “bet you can’t eat one” lie. Through it Satan gives permission to sin—and opens the door to more. This lie devalues discipline, consistency, integrity, and honesty. Satan wins if he can create guilt, self-loathing—a sense of failure.”
As I spoke of this section of the book during the lecture, I showed a slide of a bunch of sweets, like cupcakes, cookies, and—yes—donuts, with demonic looking, scary faces, mouths agape in what must be the terrible, tempting moans and wails of Satan-inspired victuals trying to lure unsuspecting “spiritual” people from their path of discipline. Of resisting such temptation, Hughes writes:
“Acknowledge, first of all, that while you may be a consistent follower of Christ, you are still a sinner saved by grace. Like the recovering alcoholic who must recognize he lives only one drink away from again becoming drunk, we must regard ourselves as reformed sinners one step away from serious problems. Don’t give Satan ammunition for this lie…. (pp. 124-125)”
Second—and closely related to this consideration—I thought of the posthumously published essay by C.S. Lewis entitled “God in the Dock,” from a collection of essays of the same name, in which Lewis laments that modern human beings see fit to question God’s goodness and sense of justice when they witness wars, poverty, grief, and suffering being so widespread on the earth. In a discussion of the difficulty Lewis met in trying to address audiences consisting of members of the Royal Air Force (R.A.F.) on the subject of Christianity, the Christian apologist notes that the “greatest barrier” he faced in this task of evangelizing was “the almost total absence from the minds of my audience of any sense of sin.” He contrasts this state of affairs with what he alleges early Christian evangelists faced in their audiences of potential converts, whether Jewish, Pagan, or the so-called God-Fearers (gentile sympathizers to Hellenistic Judaic religion). In preaching to all of these groups, Lewis argues, early evangelists brought what was literally “the Good News,” evangelium, a message that “promised healing to those who knew they were sick.” The modern situation, Lewis laments by contrast, is one where would-be missionaries like himself “have to convince our hearers of the unwelcome diagnosis before we can expect them to welcome the news of the remedy.” And there, as they say, is the rub.
Suddenly, I saw exactly what this group was selling, and—spoiler alert!—it’s the same counterfeit or otherwise damaged goods being peddled by any and all traditional religions centered on delayed returns and denigration of the physical. Like the Abrahamic faiths, Hinduism, Buddhism, and so forth, this Brahma Kumaris group (cult?) emphasizes a gap or separation between the world around you and a spiritual truth hiding behind or beyond it, between the way the world and you are now and the way you would wish they were, or at least could be in the future. And getting you to recognize and accept these posited gaps and shortcomings depends on winning your acceptance of the simple “truth” that you’re sick, not in control, not the sovereign you fancy yourself to be.
Getting the Human Condition Right
Never mind that my gray-haired interlocutor’s musings on the subject of willpower and resistance to temptation ignore the most current scientific understandings of human psychology, neurobiology, and performance. I’ve written before about how philosophers like Daniel Dennett and Peter Godfrey-Smith, neuro-psychologists like Michael Gazzaniga, cognitive scientists like Steven A. Sloman and Philip Fernbach, and moral psychologists like Jonathan Haidt and Joshua Greene all emphasize that humans are essentially composite beings, with multilayered and modular neural and psychological makeups wherein only one small piece of the machinery is self-conscious, introspective, rational, and linguistic, able to spin a narrative of self cobbled together from all the bits of partial information constantly streaming in both from other, non-self-conscious, non-introspective, non-rational, and non-linguistic areas of self (and that’s the majority of your make-up!), as well as from outside the self. Haidt uses the compelling metaphor of an elephant and rider to betoken the massive scale of the black box that is the affective, reactive part of us—the elephant—compared with the tiny part capable of rationalization and explaining ourselves and our actions/reactions to both ourselves and others—the rider. Haidt’s rider answers to Michael Gazzaniga’s notion of the so-called Interpreter module of our neurological makeup: that small, ad hoc, ex post facto part of us adept at agentive causal reasoning, synthesizing data with significant gaps in them in order to complete a single composite view of self and self’s relation to external world, and expressing that usually flawed narrative of self to both self and others in words and language.
The white-haired woman’s initial observation that we’re not sovereigns over the way sensory experience impacts us from without turns out to be the most accurate thing she said. Humans very much do find themselves tossed on a maelstrom of dark motivations arising from spur-of-the-moment stimuli-cum-autonomic response pairings. As far as dealing with temptations arising from contemplated consumption of food and drink is concerned: when we’re tired, when our attention is divided and we’re concentrating hard on some mental problem, when stress and cortisol levels reach for the stratosphere within us, and so forth, our ability to resist drops dramatically.
This is why entrepreneurial and performance-oriented types like author Benjamin Hardy have begun echoing the latest word in neuropsychology and advising that the very concept of willpower framed as ability to resist temptations—whether to snack, to drink, or just to goof off—is deeply flawed and highly suspect from the very start. If you want to cultivate so-called “willpower,” experts now agree: the very best way to go about it is simply not to try and tax your powers of will at all. Don’t put yourself in a position to rely on willpower. Rather, do what humans have always proven themselves most adept at in the evolutionary record: control your environment in such a way as to eliminate sources of temptation to begin with. This is why more and more mental health professionals have been coming forward in recent years to say, in no uncertain terms, that moralizing approaches to addiction recovery such as are found in traditional Twelve-Step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous not only don’t work, but they’re not helpful, are based on bad science, and can end up proving positively dangerous. For instance, some programs and proponents of moralizing approaches to addiction even claim that taking medication to help deal with the symptoms and pathology of addiction represents a cop out or substitution of one inappropriate substance for another, so-called “chewing your booze.” The only “authentic” path to “true recovery,” they often maintain, is simply to tough it out, relying on faith and will.
The BK message as articulated by the older instructor—and, by extension, that of all traditional religions—gets the human predicament wrong in a very particular sort of way. The initial ontological and moral split between something divine and extra-human, identified with such ideas as light, purity, and the universal over the particular, serves as both impetus and cover for a second major separation within the human being. This one cleaves off that small, flawed, ad hoc, and ex post facto rational part of us that struggles to keep up with its job of synthesizing incomplete data and makes of it and its sense of frustration over how little it can actually know about and exercise control over self, self-motivation, and the external world the whole of what counts as the you worth thinking about and, in a religious sense, saving from its benighted, struggling condition. By separating off and then raising up this one small part of us to special and unwarranted prominence to the detriment of the body and the rest of the human animal, religions have a peculiar way of having their guilt-cake and eating it too.
They teach that we fail because we cannot effectively control large parts of us that they identify with the body and bodily appetites and impulses, while simultaneously emphasizing that some small, rational part of us desperately wants greater self-knowledge and control because it is actually not part of the whole machine to begin with, but rather was cleaved off from some prior, universal state of affairs identified with purity, wholeness, peace, and satisfaction. Only, this posited source of all that’s good and desirable ultimately either lies outside of ourselves or is of a nature that is beyond the human, the worldly, the earthly. Religious doctrines preach a curious mixed message of both human frailty and shortcomings and human power to change, but, in their wrongheaded notion of the split self—of body-mind-and-soul dichotomies and trichotomies—they invest power in the wrong place and teach us to ignore the real powers we actually possess, powers that involve achieving wholeness between body and mind as integral beings who manipulate the body and its environment in order to positively affect the mind.
Sex can be quite “spiritual,” but that possibility arises only if you maintain a positive view of both the physical act of love-making and of the body that engages in it. We can prove ourselves quite adept at living outside temptations to eat and drink to excess, but only if we maintain control over our physical environments in such a way as not to overly tax our capacity to make good choices to begin with: keep the house stocked with the food and drink you want to consume and not with what you don’t want. And if you want to mess someone up well and good psychologically, then teach them to fear and even hate those physical parts of themselves they can’t control or often even introspect into over much; that that lack of control betokens their fallen state and ultimately sinful, broken, or deluded nature; that every time the small elephant-rider part of themselves they identify with personally fails to steer the massive animal it sits atop aright, they’re inhabited or affected by some alien being or the influence of an invisible malignant actor like an evil puppet-master. You could achieve no more lasting or deleterious influence over another human being than if you simply physically restrained and bodily abused them yourself—which, by the way, is yet another of traditional religion’s dirty, secretive tactics. Ready to open yourself to be filled with the pure, pearly white light of enlightenment, anyone?
Perorations: My Own and Another from a Great Film
There’s a wonderful moment near the end of the 1995 romantic comedy-cum-drama The American President that, I think, accurately sums up the dirty tactics traditional religions use to control their flocks. In the scene, the President Andrew Shepherd, played by Michael Douglas, comments on the campaign of character-assassination spearheaded by his main Congressional critic, Senator Bob Rumson, played by Richard Dreyfuss. Shepherd/Douglas says the following:
“I’ve known Bob Rumson for years. And I’ve been operating under the assumption that the reason Bob devotes so much time and energy to shouting at the rain was that he simply didn’t get it. Well, I was wrong. Bob’s problem isn’t that he doesn’t get it. Bob’s problem is that he can’t sell it!
We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things, and two things only: making you afraid of it, and telling you who’s to blame for it.”
That, ladies and gentlemen, is precisely the same principal interest of traditional religion: to identify a problem in both yourself and the world, tell you what’s to blame for it, and make you afraid of it. The problem and your fear of it hold you personally captive to the religion’s ideology, ensuring that you can act as your own jailor from within. The blame, in turn, makes you an effective foot-soldier in whatever ideological battles or wars the religion declares against those who think, speak, and act differently, helping to ensure that the world comes ever more under the influence of the particularly religious ideology and resembles ever more closely the ideal posited by the religion. The more “universal” its intended message, the more universal its attempted dominance must become, and the more problematic any one act of nonconformity or refusal to accept the faith proves to be.
The only “impure” or “not right” about you to begin with is that you weren’t born with the teachings of the religion internalized and must be convinced of your essential sickness without such “religious truths” in order to get you to adopt them later in life. The only fundamental thing wrong with the world as a whole is the incessant scrapping of individuals and groups with one another in a never-ending quest for dominance, masking their naked ambition and power-grabbing beneath a veneer of holy war or spiritual struggle to recover some supposedly lost truth or wholeness. In his speech, the fictional President Andrew Shepherd speaks to this nostalgic longing for a better, more wholesome way at some alleged point of past or hoped-for point of future time as well. He comments:
“That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections. You gather a group of middle age, middle class, middle income voters who remember with longing an easier time, and you talk to them about family, and American values and character, and you wave an old photo of the President’s girlfriend and you scream about patriotism. You tell them she’s to blame for their lot in life. And you go on television and you call her a whore.”
The message of Satanism, as I understand it, on these points is clear: you’re already whole, body and mind, life is not a struggle between the two, and no time is better nor holds more potential for fulfillment than right now. Contentment lies in acknowledging your present wholeness, not demonizing any natural part of yourself or others, and refusing to indulge the ceaseless struggle for dominance that has characterized human life caught up in delayed-return worldviews and patterns of civilization for the better part of the last ten thousand years since the Neolithic Revolution.
Meanwhile, the very real, serious problems arising from human overpopulation, over-intensive resource extraction and unequal resource distribution, and fights for dominance very much remain and require, again in the words of Michael Douglas’ Andrew Shepherd, “serious people to solve them.” Every thing else is just, as he says, shouting at the rain. Let’s leave the silliness of delayed-return religion and the contrived problems it creates-to-solve behind and get down to the serious work of serious solving of real, pressing problems that impact and threaten us all.
Satan has always been the best friend of religious zealots because he gives them a name and a face to put to the fictitious fears they seek to stoke and manipulate. Now it’s time for all us real Satanists to put the mythos and model of Satan as rebel to work in service of reverse-dominating the dominant. That’s how we can all have a shot at true personal freedom, right here and right now.
Shemhamforash and Hail Satan!