Atheism, Diaspora traditions and the end of exoteric religion (or the world)

It strikes me that some the most valid critiques that atheists and humanists level at mainstream religions, in some sense, collapse when you look at the Diaspora traditions such Ocha, Vodou, Hoodoo, Umbanda, Quimbanda etc. Sure, atheists might point to the preponderance of seemingly irrational or superstitious beliefs that are found in the ATRs - beliefs which seem all the more more fantastical, bizarre or sometimes even down right insane to the mechanistic gaze of scientific materialism.

However, when compared to mainstream religions the Diaspora traditions demonstrate a nimble, remarkably robust application to human experience that not only gives meaning to particpants, but more importantly, transcends the dualism and deadening dogma of mainstream exoteric religion. Dogma which has had a tyrannical strangle hold on the planet so toxic and undeniably destructive that humanist/atheist movements have made an entirely legitimate case that religion should be removed from the public sector entirely.

That it harms.

This then is where Diaspora traditions differ in my opinion. Where mainstream religion wants to impose a rigid moral order on society - one that is founded on the promise of reward or punishment in some idealised afterlife - Diaspora faiths focus in great part on ways of improving the quality and enjoyment of this life. This is done in various ways; the most distinct being the magico-religious interaction with the spirit world with the aim influencing the material world tangibly.

More than that, the preoccupation with some idealised after-life in which all meaning and hope is vested is almost entirely absent from the main thrust of these paths. Instead direct experience of the spirit world in meaningful lived relationship to this life and body; it's connection with the natural world, the community, wealth, health and well-being are all of central importance; domains which are understood to profoundly interconnected and above all rooted in the present life. Similarly, notions pertaining to an afterlife are rooted in the present with pervasive emphasis of ancestral veneration. Death and the dead are  interconnected with life and living rather than being sublimated into a strange necrotic obsession with the consequences for your own soul after death. As such these traditions maintain pragmatic and sophisticated technologies for relating to the manifest world, and human mind and soul which are all understood as being a direct expression of the spiritual dimension rather than being at odds with it.

Instead of having a passive religious experience mediated, interpreted and codified by a textual dogma of some sort; spiritual meaning and revelation is grounded in the demand and indeed, expectancy, for direct ecstatic experience for each participant. This then taking various forms such as; trance possession, divination or mediumship. Instead of being at mercy of an uncompromising, distant and inflexible exoteric expression of Godhead - one which demands total submission and obedience - participants are able to negotiate and communicate directly with the Divine forces.

These forces might become befriended, rewarded or even punished based on their influence and performance in the devotee's life. Now that's what I call a personal relationship with Jesus.

Most importantly these traditions maintain an unbroken chain of initiatic teaching; older ways of knowing and being in the world that might prove vital if the human race is to grow up and develop in ways that avoid self-annihilation. A downward spiralling global economy, impending environmental collapse and political turmoil pervades our planet as the gears of the scientific materialistic project revolves to its final deadly conclusion. Looking forward to science's next cold wonder to improve us, reward us and ultimately save us from ourselves has clearly proven to be a failed strategy. Yet, that seems to be the only thing we can do when operating from that broken world view.

Instead of looking at new technology, just perhaps, it is the technology that preserved in these older ways of being with the planet, each other, and fundamentally, the universe itself that holds the key to moving forward with any scrap of hope.


  1. Your thoughts on ATRs are interesting and I’m going to look into them some more. However, I’m going to disagree with some of your criticisms directed toward mainstream exoteric religions (MERs for short?) which I assume you mean Christianity and Judaism as practiced in the West. Is dogma and rigidity a part of these belief systems? Yes. Has there been harm caused by these belief systems? Yes. Are they focused on the afterlife to the detriment of this life? Not entirely. Judaism, as I have been informed, does not have a strong focus on the afterlife and is very much focused with living as good a life as humanly possible. Their religious laws and moral codes were created so as to live a more healthy, civil and prosperous life. Mainstream Christianity, while having a strong belief in the afterlife, has moral codes as well that help its adherents live a “better life.” Both belief systems offer a structure to its adherents which is designed to offer a “better life.”

    I would argue that all belief systems offer structure which includes some amount of dogma and rigidity. I’m betting this includes non-MERs (ATRs, secular/humanist systems, Pagan traditions etc) as well. This structure will have benefits and costs; they will enhance and detract from the lives of their adherents. Most believers of whatever system will probably believe their system superior to others. They will also probably fail to see their own beliefs as dogmatic.

  2. Ron, I was referring to ALL exoteric religion; Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism etc. Most importantly, and especially with regards to this post, I draw a distinction by labelling the toxic expressions of mainstream faith as "exoteric", for want of better word.

    All of these traditions without fail have a truly esoteric and spiritual foundations and adherents which naturally are quite beautiful and beneficial to the world. For the most part their outer expressions have become degraded and destructive in my opinion. The tyranny of exoteric expressions of these faiths and the tangible harm that they have brought into the world is undeniable. It is to this that I am speaking.

  3. So esoteric=good and exoteric=bad? I don't think its that simple. Religions have caused problems. But there has also been much good done. Same with science and technology. Or anything else that is human.

    I agree with your love and appreciation for esoteric spirituality. I prefer the esoteric as well. But its followers are relatively small and inwardly focused. And we too often judge that we're somehow better than 'them'. The exoteric side is larger and more outwardly focused. They have built more hospitals, as an example, than the esoteric side.

    We need both sides of spirituality for the greatest benefit.

  4. I disagree. Degraded exoteric expressions of faith are toxic. They are designed to exert power, control and subjugate, hospitals notwithstanding.

    This is where the atheist movement has hit the nail on the head. You don't need exoteric religion to build hospitals, Ron - all you need compassion. And this trait isn't the monopoly of religion. There are humanist/atheist thinkers that express far more compassion and wisdom than any exoteric religious leader that I can think of. This is where religion is losing the argument. But when it comes to consciousness, personal transformation and the creation of meaning, well, to that we need to look to the spirit world. Does exoteric religion give us this? Not so sure...

  5. Do you believe all exoteric expressions of faith are degraded? Has there been degraded esoteric expressions of faith? The one thing in common with exoteric, esoteric and humanistic systems is that they are all comprised of human beings. And all are thus susceptible to abuse of power and other human failings.

    Atheist criticisms can be good for religious systems-it can keep them honest. However, atheist/secular movements are not exempt from abuses of power and cruelty; the Soviet Union and China are two examples of this that come to mind. Nazis as well.

    I agree, you don't need exoteric religions to build hospitals, but they seem to build or fund more than atheists/esotericists do. There are hospitals without a tie to a denomination but they are likely directed and staffed by many exotericists. I happen to work for an adolescent residential facility which is owned by a rather large private health care company without apparent religious affiliation. I will have to check on the founder's views on religion. I'm betting he will turn out to be a follower of an exoteric denomination and a capitalist.

    Ultimately, you seem to be focused on the problems caused by exoteric religious movements. I am aware of these as well. I differ with you in that I believe they have done much good as well. Does the good outweigh the bad? That is an argument that will last for some time.

    Be well.

    PS: Expressions of compassion don't mean all that much to me as talk is often cheap. I am also painfully aware of actions taken for compassionate reasons that have hurt more than helped. Oh well.

  6. Ron, the myth that Nazi's were atheists is a lie that has been repeated over and again by the religious right. The nazis were not atheists. Most of them were christians and of those a majority were catholic! As for Russia - I think we can all agree Stalinism was the root of the problem there. Why atheism gets the blame for a fascist political ideology in the Soviet Union but roman catholism does not get blamed for Mussolini and itialian fascism is profound and lasting mystery that only the religious right knows the answer to.

    Lets chat again about this topic when we see the first spate of atheist suicide bombings, OK?

  7. @Balthazar:
    I completely agree with you.

    The truth of the matter is that most mainstream religions, the exoteric ones have today failed miserably in their initiatic role. Most religions start out as initiatic mystery schools and then degrade into outer manifestations, into exoteric dogma designed to control. Christianity is a perfect example of this.

    Then we have a certain religion of the book with never had an initiatic aspects and has always been an exoteric religion that with time has esoteric elements added to that, but I am not even going to start that line of thought here as I don't want trolls to show up on your page.

    Exoteric religions are useless and cause more problems in the world then any other ideas or views because they lack precisely the true living aspects that vitalise the humans experience.

    Diaspora religions have, thus far not been subjected to what the mainstream religions have been to the same extent: nobody suddenly decided to use the religions either for political powers and nobody has a central authority figure that takes the MYTH and aims to use it as fact.
    (Duvaliers use of Vouodu is different)

    I don't think that the diaspora religions are immune to this exoteric disease the other religions have contracted, as more and more westerners are wishing to join them for the incorrect reasons we once discussed. But I think the immunity of these religions is stronger and therefore even if exoteric versions will crop up, the esoteric aspects will come out over the top.

    btw: Bottle is prepared for you, I can drop it off thurs-friday ish.

  8. Ah, there's the rub, brother. Religion isn't the source of suicide bombings. In fact you forget that acts of terrorism, hate, and violence are often aimed at political aims while using a thin vaneer of religiosity. The danger lies in looking at extremes on either end and assuming it represents the whole.

    Blaming the woes of the world on "exoteric religion" is a commonplace compaint amonst occultists and those of use involved in a more esoteric path. Yet, these same esoteric paths owe a great deal of their existence to those degraded exoteric religions. Would there be a hoodoo without Christianity? Would there even be a Western Magical Tradition without Islam? Would there even be a Qabalah without Judaism? I don't think so. These religions even in moments of extreme intoleration are vital to existence of esoteric traditions. In the East there is a saying that involves this relationship. The exoteric forms the body of the rose while the esoteric the scent of the rose. Having one without the other is artifical.

    While I agree that a great deal of introspection is needed by modern main stream religions these days and perhaps a revival of sorts is required. As a historian I am obliged to point out that these faiths work in cyclical fashions. There are periods of darkness where man in his ignorance uses religions to manipulate and control. Yet such moments pass and main stream religion again takes it place as a vital spiritual life-style. Our troubles are not new. Just as the Inquisition was the dark ages for the Catholic faith it eventually gave way to a church that commissioned some of the greatest scientific discoveries and patronized the arts. Cyclical.

    Furthermore it is important to note that religions only turn to salvation in an afterlife during these dark periods. When the wheel turns again these same religions have a strong emphasis on the here and now. In fact to assume that by nature mainsteam religions are based solely on escape and by nature are toxic is to take away from the spiritual role they fulfill for billions world-wide.

    So in summation, dear brother, I find that I often agree with you and I highly respect you, but in this case I must disagree. As diviners we know to look a bit deeper than the superficial.

    I think the crux of this mattter lies in the fact that just as it would be incorrect to blame the atrocities of Soviet Russia on atheism, so too would it be incorrect to blame these other woes on religion.

  9. Dear Ali - you make some very good points. Thanks for responding and giving your perspective - the respect certainly is mutual my friend.

    Though, it must be said I never blamed all the woes of the world on exoteric religion. In fact I think scientific materialism has done much damage, along with human stupidity and politics.

    The thing is - exoteric religion, stupidity and politics have been such cozy bed-mates for so long it's become increasingly difficult to not view them as deeply interconnected.

    As a historian you might also recognise this fact, I imagine.

    Does exoteric religion bring cyclic value to the world?

    I imagine it does bring value to the world as a greater part of all cultural production. Cathedrals got built, chapels painted, sonatas composed, sure. That is undeniable.

    Does it form the a vehicle or basis for esoteric and the spiritual?

    Well, sometimes I think the esoteric and the spiritual happen IN SPITE of the exoteric not because of it. Though, that is nuanced debate beyond the scope of this post.

    Most importantly, my post was aimed at pointing out that Diaspora traditions due to their non-codified and non-centrally governed, along with what are usually trance based forms of religious gnosis (as opposed to codified theology) tend to resist the taint that creeps into religious organisations once they do become codified, centralised and governed.

    I think the key point of my argument is in fact the distinction between religious organisation and personal religious experience.

  10. Ideally, exoteric and esoteric traditions must work together. An "exoteric" tradition still needs its priestesses and prophets and healers and diviners, etc, no? And an "esoteric" tradition has some responsibility to share it's spiritual insights and other gifts with the wider world, in fact all such traditions are inevitably led to do so.

    ATR's (whether in Africa or the Americas or elsewhere) always "minister" to the community at large, thereby providing an exoteric religious path to non-initiates.

  11. I have a feeling the historical fact of how religions actually worked prior to the christianisation of the roman empire is in order.

    Look at India today.

    See how many religions coexist? How some people are parts of one religion and some or not?

    See how some members of the various religions choose to stay right on the threshold whereas others choose to progress and take vows?

    The question here is not whether or not a religion is for the masses. That is not what exoteric or esoteric actually means.

    You had so many different religions co-existing in the roman emopire, in Alexandria. temples were autonomous and the mystery religions were very clearly divided from the RELIGION of the STATE. same in egypt. State ceremonies and the religion of the people were quite different.

    There are Exoteric religions today that have less than a few thousand followers and there are Esoteric groups that are twice as big. that is not the point. This is not a God-bashing christianity hating comment.

    The whole thing boils down to the fact that religions of the world have become tools for the political power and undergone a change from a living tradition to a socio-political-religious state.

    This is academic fact that any good historian of religion or comparative religious scholar knows. You only need to study the academic research tyhat ahs gone into early Judaism and notice how religions of the book are codified and very quickly become tools for manipulation of the masses.

    A religion can be esoteric whether or not someone actually takes the step further into a deeper understanding of the mystery or not. It can also be exoteric even if you have to undergo expensive initiations to receive the holy books (scientology anyone)

    This whole idea of exoteric and esoteric religions working together is quite frankly bullshit. There is no Exoteric religion needed. a truly Esoteric religion or a society that allows for such is enough and those who do not want to be magicians/mystics can still take a part, can still become initiates of the lesser mystery en masse and the Great one msytery will is still safe in the hands of the great big scary mages. or whatever.

    Esoteric doesn't mean -better- or -for magicians only-. It means a real lived experience a living tradition, not an empty husk.
    Not having to force out esoteric interpretations of very clearly non-esoteric texts.

    if you try hard enough even an iphone manual can be interpreted as an esoteric revelation, but its not designed for it is it?

    Greek and Roman scholars remarked simillar things when they studied Egyptian religion, that there seeemd to be something hidden behind the outer form.

    A modern mind has such a hard time understanding just how religions were esoteric and used to actually serve and shepherd the masses, even the ones who are unnable to enter into a deeper understanding, whereas today Exoteric religions want the masses to serve them.

    Historically correct, academically correct and not taken from a softcover Llewwlyn book.

  12. I am not sure if it is a problem with exoteric religion as a thing itself, but more a numbers game. As the ratio of Congregant to Clergy becomes more imbalanced, and there are more people to deal with in a faith, it becomes natural to become like any other beurocratic organization, or business in order to be able to serve them all properly.

    Slowly, through that process a public religion is made out of a private one, and the same cycle repeats itself. Especially when power starts to be concentrated among a few clerics, and when those more experienced clerics are forced to solidify living spiritual experience onto a page for a broader, quickly growing, base.

    Religions less guilty of abuses against the public and enviornment tend to be decentralized, and have a very fluid self definiotion. Daoism, and pre-20th century Hinduism spring to mind as examples. Buddhism does as well generally, and even with a solidified power base in Tibetan Vajrayana, there are still remarkably LESS spiritual abuses.

  13. "This whole idea of exoteric and esoteric religions working together is quite frankly bullshit."

    It's not at all clear who or what you are actually arguing against, Argent, but clearly part of what you are saying (the part I have quoted above) is not true. In a many traditions there is a distinction made between teachings that are available to any and all ("exoteric"), and those that are available only to Initiates ("esoteric"). This was true in classical Greco-Roman Paganism, and it is also true in Tantric Buddhism and many parts of Hinduism. In all three cases, the esoteric and exoteric teachings work together.

    In my own opinion, secrecy is fundamental to any truly esoteric teaching, but not all religious knowledge should be protected with vows of secrecy. Indeed there should be a dynamic tension between the desire to share potentially beneficial knowledge and the desire to protect knowledge from misuse and corruption. All human beings are in need of religious instruction, and also all individuals (as well as society as a whole) benefit from participation in open ("exoteric") rituals and celebrations.

  14. @Apuleius

    you are completely missing the argument of my post; There being initiations to the mysteries in no way creates a divide between esoteric and the exoteric aspects. as per what i'm actually writing above.

    It is only a level of initiation into the mysteries, it doesn't mean that the outer way is exoteric. Just because we badly translate hindi and tibetan terms into our words doesn't mean the same thing is meant.

    Protestant christianity also has initiations called baptism and confirmation which gives you access to the eucharist. Does this mean that all 14+year old kids in protestant scandinavia are initiates into deeper mysteries?

    I think not.


  15. @Argent, the claim that many of the mainstream religions began as mystery cults is entirely incorrect. It part of popular pseudintellectualism.

    Christianity may have similarities with mystery cults, but the two are entirely different. Mystery cults are focused on the "mysteries." Initiation allows one a glimpse into such mysteries, i.e the mystery of the feminine in the Cult of Isis, the mystery of eternal life in Mithras, the mystery of the sun in Sol Invictus etc etc.

    Christianity on the other hand was a social religion. It was aimed at social reform. There is no mystery, only striving for God's Kingdom now. At least this was its historical message.

    Neither were Judaism, or Islam mystery cults. In fact Judaism predates them and Islam is way after the mystery cults have died away.

    And the pagan faiths did not co-exist under the Roman Empire. In fact the Romans demanded strict observance of the state religion, or religio. They persecuted other religions and adopted some of the practices they liked, while wiping out others. Emperors like Diocletian went so far as to push against the diversity of religions by legal sanctions in order to restore the old state religions. The idea that somehow there was a "co-existing" under Roman rule is a fallacy. The Romans were just as bigoted and dogmatic as any people.

    @Balthazar. I certainly understand your point and I am glad that you shared it. You are most right that politics, religion, and corruption have become happy bedmates. The issue lies that it is us people that do that. In other faith that are not mainstream religion often becomes bedmates with a lower-level of corruption resulting in scams and similar abuses of power. I think the fault lies with people themselves.

    I think we are looking at different perspectives that are both actually correct. In either case what we can agree upon is that there needs to be more talks like this in mainstream religion. Its about time such faiths realize there is a valid criticism that it needs to face. :-)

  16. @ Ali

    I don't have the time or energy to give you a run through of religious history. Christianity did start as a mystery cult and this is not pseudo intellectualism, it is religious fact. You know, the kind you get when you study a religious history. If you, on your own would like to further pursue this highly interesting subject I can suggest that you look into the history of baptism and the forms Christianity took in its early stages. You might specifically want to look into who and what was allowed to to take communion and get baptised. You might also want to contrast and highlight the ideas of the Christian communion, what the current church dogma is and was historically and how this was understood in earlier times and draw parallels, compare and review similar cult aspects of other religions.

    Well done for pointing out that the romans demanded observance of the state religion which is exactly what I said above, where I also focus on the fact that there was a massive difference between the state religion and the religion of the people.

    What I fail to see is how anything you are saying is in any way actually contradicting my point regarding exoteric religion being a tool for the state?

    You are of course right with judaism, That was exoteric from the get go as was Islam, no argument there whatsoever!

  17. Dear Ali and Argent,

    You both make excellent points and thanks for making them so well - though, I trust you will keep the tone of the discourse friendly, brothers.

    @Ali, you should check out Magic in the New Testament by Robert Conners I have been meaning to write up a review, but it touches upon some of what you mention and then elaborates with some rather surprising conclusions using a a survey and appraisal of all the documented evidence at the time; ranging from apocryphal material, letters between people contemporaneously, as well as the greek magical papyri. Some fabulous, fabulous stuff indeed. A game changer I would say.

    With regards to Argent being psuedo intellectual - we have been spending some time together talking magic recently and with a doctorate in philosophy from a rather prestigious European institution I can confirm there isn't all that much pseudo about is intellectualism.

    Though perhaps he comes of a bit terse in writing ;)

    Thank you both again for taking time to talk about this topic, its been very useful and interesting to me to hear all these perspectives and has certainly helped me grow and think about this area differently.

  18. Hi Balthazar,

    I have been a fan of your blog for a while. There is always food for thought. Your posting was interesting. However, I don't agree that "mainstream exoteric religions" are any worse or better than ATR's. Religion is what you make of it. It is unfortunate that some religious traditions are more scuceptible to dogmatic black/white, us vs. them dogmatic thinking. Every religion, even Christianity, has an esoteric dimension that emphasized a personal relationship with the divine. Any school of thought or religion can be hijacked by fanatics, the state, banking interests, ect. Even ATR's can be hijacked by those with self-serving power hungry interest (in the US, it can be easy for newcomer to fall prey to a phoney "priest" or "hougan" with no real credential or power to legitimately initiate others into the mysteries, or to fall prey to a real priest or hougan intent on exploitation). What matters most is that your religion brings you comfort and confers meaning and relevance to your life. Just to finish up, although there are some religious movements that are very strict, day to day I think that the vast majority of people are able to adapt the principles of thier beliefs to the real struggles of thier everyday lives without resorting to dogma.

  19. @Balthazar, I certainly did not mean to offend. I have nothing but respect for the opinions shared here. I was not claiming that Argent is a pseudo-intellectual, I do not know him, but his arguments seem well-reasonsed. I pointed out that the claim of Christianity being a mystery cult is not an academic fact, but is popular pseudo-intellectualism. You may get a mention or two in undergrad studies, but past that you'll find that very few accepted and mainstream scholars hold to that point of view anymore. It is based on rather superficial points of convergence. I'm sure some disagree, but in reality the majority of scholarship points away from the claim that Christianity had its roots in mystery cults.

    @Argent my post-graduate work *is* in religious history with an emphasis on the origins of Christianity. Oh, and it is from a prestigious American university, where I am employed as a lecturer ;-). My book on Near Eastern religions is soon to be published by a well-respected university. So, let's just say that this is my area ;-)

    Christianity adopted some aspects of mystery cults but by very nature they are vastly different. Christianity is categorized as a social religion. In fact God is defined as a community-forming power. This is in direct response to the boundaries of community formed by the Judaism (rather Judaisms, emphasis on the plural). Mystery cults on the other hand are are exclusive with strict rules and regulations on who can take part in their rites and their goal also differs in they aim at the contemplation of the "mysteries."

    So in reponse to your request for me to examine some of the rites of early Christianity, already done ;-). These rites actually point to a radical inclusivity that no other religion at the time time had. We see this in some of the accusations thrown at Christians and Christ himself. They are accused of breaking bread with tax-collectors, lepers, prostitutes, and other people often considered less than desirable.

    What results is something vastly different from a mystery cult. Are there similarities? Absolutely. Did Christianity adopt practices from Mystery cults, you bet they did, but their mission is one that is socially-based, unlike the mystery cults.

    Oh, and before I forget, baptism pre-existed the mystery cults and we see evidence of it in Judaism where figures like John the Baptizer (yes I said Baptizer, it is a more accurate rendition of the Greek) uses the spiritual rite as a means of radical inclusivity--bringing gentiles into the fold where as before they were excluded.

    Books of interest on the development of Christianity and sources for some of my arguments: The Jesus Movement by Stegemann brothers, especially good read to learn how Christianity is a Jewish movement not a mystery cult, or even a charismatic movement.

    New Testament World by Malina-- a must read for any interested in academic views on the topic.

  20. @Ali, no offence taken brother! I love a good debate, even a heated one ;) It is an interesting topic and obviously every has strong ideas about it.

  21. @ Ali and Balth

    Good arguments are fun and it is indeed refreshing to discuss with more then just "this is my opinion and its better then yours" type of people. I'm not aware what the American academic scene is like Ali, and what the consensus among scholars there is, depending on the flavour of the institution different things tend to be plugged. Academia is a very incestuous place.

    Cool re the book, get Balt to review it I would be interested in perusing it.

    I have a feeling this would be more fun to continue irl as forum based arguments tend to degenerate and I don't have time to be as thorough as I would want which means, as B says that I seem short. The book below is used in graduate studies, and might be fun for those who want o have a look.

    The english version is available as

    "Klauck, Brian; McNeil (2003), The Religious Context of Early Christianity"

    also a very good read.