by Mitch Horowitz, author of Occult America: White House Seances, Ouija Circles, Masons, and the Secret Mystic History of Our Nation (Bantam hardcover 2009, Bantam trade paperback October 2010).
Discussions about the occult tend to stir passions, which is natural because we’ve been raised to regard occult spirituality as something diabolical or just strange. I argue in Occult America that mystical and supernatural-themed religions are communities of belief and should be understood as a vital part of America’s religious development – indeed we can’t really understand our religious past (and present) without coming to terms with them. They have exerted a remarkable influence on mainstream life.
To reply to Juan Oskar’s good question about feudalism and the European church, there were, of course, tendencies in Europe that attempted to modify or overturn hierarchical religious structures. Radical movements emerged from the Reformation – such as German Pietism (a Protestant mystical movement) and Rosicrucianism, an early-seventeenth century ecumenical and occult philosophy. The rise of Freemasonry, which became a public force in the early eighteenth century, can also be seen as part of this trend. Masonry, like Rosicrucianism, advocated early forms of religious toleration and liberty, and honored the individual spiritual search.
In Occult America, I argue that these movements attained their greatest influence in America, where they helped ignite a culture of religious experimentation. This began in the mid-to-late seventeenth century, long before the Constitution was codified. So, European and early American movements were both on the move against feudalistic styles of religion. I think their greatest success was attained in the U.S., which developed a remarkably diverse religious culture even in its colonial period.
To the comments under “The Way I See It,” I would note that there is nothing evil or diabolical in occult practices. Renaissance scholars applied the term “occult,” or hidden, to ancient Egyptian-Hellenic religious ideas that began to reemerge in the fifteenth century. In the Renaissance mind, occult spirituality encompassed pre-Christian religious practices (ranging from astrology to alchemy to spirit mediumship). These rites and methods became unmoored from any church, temple, or priesthood as the religious orders of the ancient world faded. They reappeared as a kind of unchurched spirituality during the Renaissance renewal of Europe.
In antiquity, as in modern times, their acolytes never saw themselves as having anything to do with black magic or Satanism. Those terms were epithets that early Church Fathers directed at the fading pagan powers as the church ascended in late antiquity. Misdirected charges of Satanism sometimes also arise from a modern misunderstanding of African-influenced religious traditions, such as Voodoo, Santeria, and hoodoo. In essence, no real tradition of Satanism has ever existed in the West – other than in the form of stories and historical hearsay.
I very much admire (and share) your urging that the individual should search “the yearning…written in our hearts.” But I would note to you and the commenter who immediately follows that when we ask someone to search his or her heart, we must be willing to let that search go beyond our own footsteps. “Truth,” as Jiddu Krishnamurti put it, “is a pathless land.”
Finally, in reply to G’s comments: I view the New Age movement as a very relevant and meaningful spiritual culture on its own in American life; it is also an unacknowledged influence on mainstream religion. The point I make in the piece is that the earlier occult subcultures, which morphed into the New Age, have reshaped America’s traditional faiths as vehicles that must respond to the day-to-day needs of the individual (as well as to higher or salvational yearnings). In general, I see this as a positive development. As I write in the piece, esoteric and alternative religious movements today are rightly viewed “not as oddball trends but as forces that reflected a serious and widespread search for meaning.”
A widely known writer and speaker on the history and impact of alternative spirituality, Mitch Horowitz is the editor-in-chief of Tarcher/Penguin and the author of Occult America (Bantam 2009/2010), which The Washington Post Book World called: “Fascinating…a serious, wide-ranging study of all the magical, mystical, and spiritual movements that have arisen and influenced American history in often-surprising ways.” Horowitz has written for U.S. News & World Report, The Washington Post, Parabola, and BoingBoing. He has recently appeared on CBS Sunday Morning, Dateline NBC, and All Things Considered. You can visit him online at www.MitchHorowitz.com