Photo by Jan Ainali via Wikicommons
Ever been to an honest-to-goodness Catholic Mass? Well, you should—especially now that it's Halloween season. The amount of incantations, candles, robes, and terrifying imagery at your local Mass will put any haunted house to shame. But it's nothing compared to the old-timey Masses that were the norm before the Second Vatican Council of 1962. Before that mini-reformation, Masses were done entirely in Latin, and the priest would face away from the congregation as he spoke toward the altar. Imagine a cloaked old man mumbling all sorts of weird nonsense into a wall as smoke from nearby candles slowly curls around the whole scene. Just gave myself the heebie -jeebies.
But why turn away from the congregation? Why all the secrecy? Because that's how magic works.
Priests have always been the gatekeepers in Catholicism. They're the holy translators between Earthly peons and the Man Upstairs. Other religions have their own gatekeepers: Jews have rabbis, Muslims have imams, Scientologists have OT VIIIs. These people are a vital part of the business model. Without them, who collects the money?
But as informational democracy expands, power becomes less centralized. Just look at Martin Luther back in the 1520s. He took advantage of the invention of the printing press and cut the legs out from under the Catholics. Today, the internet is democratizing everything. CNN is being swapped out for Twitter. Pirate Bay is being used in place of cable. So the big question is, Do religions need gatekeepers anymore?
Syntheism, the first “open-source” religion, thinks not.
“Just take whatever you want and make it your own thing,” says Tom Knox, one of the religion's founders. “Whatever works for you... do it. You don't need to ask anybody's permission.”
That's the ethos of the new atheistic religious movement. Syntheism originated from Alain de Botton's 2011 TED Talk titled "Atheism 2.0," which wondered how atheists could achieve the same feelings of community and awe that religious believers experience. As de Botton summarized the paradox, “I can't believe in these doctrines, I don't think these doctrines are right, but I love Christmas carols.”
To Knox, that message hit home. “I came to see the particularities of god as unimportant to any religion.” With de Botton's words leading the way, Knox and other atheists from around the world created a Facebook page to debate and construct their own religion, one that nonbelievers could latch on to.
“We can freely steal/borrow whatever ritual or concept we want, from any religion, or even fictional religion from books we like,” Knox says. “It's not like any god is going to punish us for it.”
That was last January. There are now 1,332 members of Syntheism on Facebook. “It spread fast,” says Knox, “even though it was literally nothing.”
Just how nothing? When you try to find a set of core beliefs for Syntheism, it becomes painfully clear.
According to their Facebook page, Syntheism is “the art of nonknowledge.”
If that's no help, the page also attempts to describe the Syntheist deity: “So while Jehovah may be the god of unpredictable mood swings, Allah the god of obedience and reward, and Jesus the god of masochism and mercy, Atheos is the god of utter and complete silence from which Agape springs.”
Alexander Bard, a musician and philosopher who makes regular appearances as a judge on Swedish Pop Idol, is one of Syntheism's founders and most famous members. He has spent a great deal of time thinking about the religion and trying to break down the faith's core concepts.
To that end, in an interview with the Guardian, he came to the conclusion that, "Religion is first practiced, then formulated. Saint Paul wrote his letters after Christianity was being practiced across the Roman Empire. I firmly believe that Syntheism is already being practiced and we are just formulating it."
In other words, the Syntheists are looking to see what works first, and then forming a religion from it.
At its core, the main thing that ties every Syntheist together is the belief that there is no main thing. As a review of Syntheism: Creating God in the Internet Age—Bard's book on Syntheism, which he wrote while “lying next to a beautiful naked actress at Burning Man”—puts it, “The Syntheism god is the swarm.”
“We decided early against any universal principals all members had to submit to,” says Knox. “The Syntheist mass is very open to change. And does change from time to time. We see it as constantly evolving. With the internet today, leaders aren't necessary. Any crap can be spontaneously crowd-sourced in no time.”
But can a religion without central leadership actually work?
“It's a very interesting experiment in what you might call postmodern skeptical religion,” says Dr. Stephen O'Leary, a USC professor who focuses on studying religious communication. “But it seems to me, this is an experiment bound to fail.”
To O'Leary, the fact that the group doesn't have any central beliefs is where it loses steam. “There's that joke about herding cats—how do you get people like that to come together on anything.” Other religious groups have tried to use consensus to form rules, the Quakers being among the most notable. But there's a reason you don't know any Quakers. “It's anarchistic, and how much do anarchists actually cooperate.”
More vital to O'Leary's skepticism is the lack of mystery, which is inherently woven into the fabric of hierarchy. “Mystery is an integral part of the religious experience, even if it's experienced purely objectively,” he says. “Magic, mystery, it all goes to support authority.”
The cloaks, candles, incantations, crucifix... they all get their power from—and in turn, grant their power to the authority overseeing the religion. The priest chanting in Latin, the Talmudic rabbi consulting the Torah, the cult leader looking into the stars and finding the spaceship that'll whisk everyone away. It's the fact these gatekeepers exist to tell their followers that the symbols or rituals are important that ultimately makes them important, which in turn makes the gatekeepers more important, and back and forth it goes.
“If you're trying to have a religion where everyone is equal and everyone has an equal voice, it's admirable,” concludes O'Leary. “But I've never seen it work.”
One theory for the origin of the phrase “hocus pocus” is that it began as a parody of the Latin phrase, “Hoc est corpus meum.” This is what Catholic priests used to say, back in the day, during the most important part of the Mass, when they were magically turning their torn pieces of bread into (according to the Scripture) actual pieces of Jesus Christ's body. If you translate Hoc est corpus meum, it means something like “This is my body.” Which, sure, is still full of odd poetry. But it ain't magic.
Magic can't exist when you know what the magician's doing. Syntheism is trying to make some without a magician at all.