Aleister Crowley had a lot of ideas, and he had at least one good idea. He thought that certain aspects of religion could be approached as a scientific experiment.
Crowley, in his study of comparative religion, noticed that all religions had in common the fact that they carried out certain ritualistic practices, and these practices did not differ very much between religions. He concluded that there might be something to them.
In particular, Crowley notes, every religion features a type of practice variously called “prayer” or “meditation.” This practice is supposed to bring a person into contact with God. Or, as the Indian mystics more boldly phrased it, “union with God.” Or, as the Buddhists less theologically phrased it, “enlightenment.” It is not quite clear what they are talking about, but it is clear that they are talking about something, and not all completely different things.
Here we have a testable hypothesis. If I engage in this practice of prayer or meditation, this will bring me to “contact with God” or “enlightenment” or whatever it is. It is possible to perform this experiment and confirm or deny the hypothesis.
It is not so easy, because most people hold that doing it once is not sufficient. Most people hold that in order to obtain serious results it is necessary to devote a great deal of time and effort to doing this systematically over a long period of time — and possibly to add various restrictions and disciplines on top of the mere fact of performing the practice.
The proposed experiment therefore not only takes a great deal of time, but it also takes a great deal of effort and potentially involves undergoing a great deal of suffering, depending on the details of the program one selects.
What this means is that most people will not do this. Indeed, in general the people who do do this are fairly certain beforehand that they will succeed, or at any rate that success is in principle possible and that if they fail it will be their own fault. I have not heard of anybody doing it because they were not sure whether or not it would work, and they wanted to find out. Let us give a name to the minimum belief system that people who attempt such a program tend to work under. Let us call it the Mysticism Hypothesis:
The Mysticism Hypothesis: “If I perform the practice called ‘prayer’ or ‘meditation,’ I can obtain ‘contact with God’ or ‘union with God’ or ‘enlightenment.’ If I try and it does not work, it was not because prayer/meditation do not work; rather, it was because my efforts did not make par.”
What grounds are there for believing the Mysticism Hypothesis? Chiefly they are anecdotal. Countless individuals throughout history have practiced prayer/meditation and claimed to have achieved the stated results. I practiced prayer/meditation and claim to have achieved the stated results. Is this anecdotal evidence sufficient reason to believe in the Mysticism Hypothesis?
The question “should I believe in the Mysticism Hypothesis?” is an important question, because if God/enlightenment exists then it is also the most valuable thing there is, and therefore it is rational to have obtaining it as one of one’s basic priorities.
Furthermore, I have suggested that God/enlightenment cannot be described in words, and if I am right in this then the only remotely reliable way I know of to learn what God/enlightenment actually is would be to practice prayer/meditation. We could not place God/enlightenment at its proper value unless we first knew what it was.