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Beyond the Veil
Religion, Scientism, and the Supernatural
Dear Living Dark readers,
I was recently interviewed for Mycelium Signal, the podcast of the Finnish visionary artist collective Tuonnen Portti. Today I’m sharing a few transcripts from different portions of the episode. I also, of course, encourage you to listen to the episode itself.
First, here is the official episode description, which does a nice job of summarizing my conversation with host Konstantin Tuonihovi:
We’re excited to welcome our esteemed guest today, the accomplished author Matt Cardin, hailing from Arkansas, USA. In our conversation, we delve into a diverse range of topics including the concept of the daemon muse, the differences of science and scientism, explorations of pessimism and nihilism, insights into nonduality, and discussions on supernatural horror. We also touch upon the influences and thoughts of Robert Anton Wilson, Thomas Ligotti, H. P. Lovecraft, Carl Jung, James Hillman, and Stan Gooch. Additionally, we explore the harrowing concept of Chapel Perilous and discuss Matt’s very first published horror story, “Teeth.”
In creating the following partial transcript (which leaves out a huge amount of material), I performed a little bit of clean-up to render some sentences intelligible and some meanings clear during the transition from spoken language to written text. But other than that, I left things in their original “rough” form, to preserve the rhythm of my speech and the spontaneity of my responses to Konstantin’s skillful questions. If you find these excerpts of interest, you’d surely enjoy listening to the episode itself.
On religion and supernatural horror
Right now my religious and spiritual perspective, such as it is, is deeply vested in non-duality, in a non-dual understanding of things, where my own personality and personal, separate, individual reality is something that I increasingly perceive as kind of a hyper-phenomenon, a dream-like phenomenon, including the world in which it exists. I’ve tended to perceive things more in what I once would have called a mystical way. But that term seems a bit too far out. I kind of feel like I’ve progressively seen beneath the surface of words like God, and heaven, and spirit, and things like that, which were handed to me as a child, to the point where I understand that they actually refer to very practical realities right now.
This also happens in horror fiction, and that’s why these things have been intertwined for me. My position right now is kind of like a view of non-dual clarity, where I also can’t help but remain interested in matters of supernatural horror as well, like I’ve written about so much. It seems to me supernatural horror is interrogating the same things, from perhaps a darker angle. Like religion, it tries to see a reality below the surface of conventional things. This is all bound up together. I think about it a lot, and I talk about it in my writing. So there’s no name, perhaps, for my current outlook or position, but it is a combination of these things I’m talking about.
In fact, supernatural horror is the ideal genre for talking about matters of religion. It deals with good and evil, it deals with fundamental metaphysical questions, so it’s right in the middle of that. How can anybody ever think that it wasn’t legitimate for someone with a Christian identification to talk about horror? The same is true when it comes to what has been my own main field of fascination, which is cosmic and weird supernatural horror. Those particular sub-genres or sub-modes, or however you want to frame it, are all about telling stories that involve settings, and/or plots, and/or people and events and backgrounds and moods and so on, that sort of lift the veil of conventional reality and either directly depict or very strongly imply and convey the feeling of realities that are unseen, realities that usually aren’t noticed or acknowledged, and that sometimes would be outright denied or rejected by conventional attitudes and viewpoints in society at large.
Supernatural horror is interrogating the same things as religion, from perhaps a darker angle. Like religion, it tries to see a reality below the surface of conventional things.
Although many people take religion to be something that fundamentally tries to comfort by providing explanations and, you know, a metaphysical tidying up of difficult questions, and also psychological comfort and that kind of thing by making people think, “Oh, there’s a God who loves me,” or, “Oh, there’s a life after death,” and so on, in my view religion has a much deeper angle. Religion and true spirituality aren’t necessarily about comfort. I mean, in the end, yes, they’re deeply comforting. But they are more like weird and cosmic horror, in that the situation they depict goes beyond the conventional.
I should add that what counts as conventional is of course a historically evolving thing. That’s why a number of astute observers have gotten at this, including Lovecraft, and S. T. Joshi, and, I think, Peter Penzoldt in his classic study of horror fiction. A number of observers have pointed out that, in the wake of the eighteenth-century European enlightenment—you know, the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century birth of science in its modern mode—supernatural horror arose as a genre because, suddenly, you had this dominant cultural paradigm and cultural narrative that rejected and ejected what had formerly been a huge part of human experience, all those things that were now classified as supernatural and metaphysical. And this supernatural or metaphysical presence was not just “out there,” it was within the human subjective experience, within the human psyche.
On the modern displacement of the human religious impulse
Things like money, and celebrities, and climate change are probably fulfilling some of the same functions that religion formerly did. I mean, it’s pretty easy to use the term “religion” in a broad sense and say that something has become someone’s religion. We tend to use the term loosely. If someone devotes a lot of time to something, if it looms large in their sense of things, if they’re ritualistic in how often they think about it, or how they talk about it or engage in it, we say it has “become their religion.” And that’s all legitimate.
But this is different from serving an actual religious function. To serve a religious function means two things. One, it means something serves a fundamental orienting function in someone’s life. It provides an orientation point and an explanation of things that the person feels are of deep importance to understanding his or her place in the world, and where he or she is going, and where he or she is from. So that’s one part of what makes something a religion. And in this sense, yeah, I think things like money, celebrity culture, and climate change have become religions to many people.
The second part involves the question of whether or not there is an attitude attached to these things that has usually been termed “the sacred.” This word doesn’t have to be used in a religious context. Sometimes it helps to separate it from that. I mean, we almost always hear it used in a religious and spiritual context, which is natural, but it helps to genericize it and understand that when something is sacred to a person, this means it has a certain aura about it. This aura is related in a way—and there is of course a vast anthropological literature on this—to the idea of things that are taboo, whether to an individual or to a culture. Things where you just don’t go there, or where you don’t say those words, or you don’t think about those things, or you can’t handle these objects, or you just don’t entertain certain ideas that are too sensitive to talk about because they hit too close to home, they’re too important. The sacred is deeply related to this idea of things that are taboo or too important to be taken lightly and brought out in regular, daily conversation and use.
The religious impulse in humans is fundamental. It’s ineradicable in the way we are now, so it will just be displaced onto different things. It will not be removed and replaced.
Now, when it comes to something like climate change, yes, everyone talks about it all the time. But it’s interesting what you sometimes see in some of the most emotional and intense writings about it, even in a journalistic context. For example, an article came out a few years ago that caught everyone’s attention. It was about the planet getting hotter and having wilder weather and being less hospitable to human civilization as we know it. And in this kind of writing, and also in documentary films, and in the news and so on, there’s a sense of awesome scope, a sense that something about our place has become unhinged, through our own actions to some extent. There’s this melancholy, grim tone that people adopt in thinking and talking about it. Then you see things like the various groups that are focused on human extinction. They actually put on costumes and stage public scenes and so on. At that point you can see the whole—and here’s the word I haven’t used yet—numinous nature of their sense of what’s happening. It’s a very dark, grim wing of the numinous.
So, yeah, I think there are many things that have come along that have taken the place of traditional religion for a lot of people, both the part dealing with how people feel about their fundamental place and their understanding of the cosmology they’re involved in—metaphysically, morally, physically—and the other part about having a sense of the sacred attached to it.
This is probably always going to happen. It’s a well-known fact that for 200 years, many people expected that religion would go away as the general populace became more enlightened to this combination of rationalism and empiricism that constitutes the scientific materialist world view. But that didn’t happen, and it will never happen. What counts as traditional religions will mutate. Some will rise, some will fall. There’s a huge falling away from traditional religions that’s ongoing now, at least in the West. It happened a long time ago in Europe. It’s beginning to happen in the United States in ways not previously seen . But I think the religious impulse in humans is fundamental, at least as far as where we are now in our evolutionary journey. It’s ineradicable in the way we are now, so it will just be displaced onto different things. It will not be removed and replaced.
On theories, paradigms, and the transcendent reality of pure subjectivity
One of my fundamental areas of interest is that none of us can step outside of our subjectivity. Unless you’re very self-aware about it, different ways of looking at things tend to try and round themselves off into an all-encompassing understanding and explanation, an all-encompassing paradigm, so that you feel you can definitively say, for example, “Yes, I know there’s no such thing as God, or that the literal truth of religious and spiritual ideas is zero, but I can enjoy the emotions.” Or you might be someone who says, “Oh, no, I know there’s a God. Or I have faith there’s a God.” Or whatever version of religion you have. Unless people are very self-aware about it and realize what they’re doing, they’re all mistaken to some extent, because no paradigm can ever actually encompass the one who holds it. No theory can swallow the theorizer. You cannot step outside your own subjective view and make a sweeping, all-true statement about yourself or the universe in which you live.
No theory can swallow the theorizer. You cannot step outside your own subjective view and make a sweeping, all-true statement about yourself or the universe in which you live.
This throws me back on questions of, and a fascination with, how people make sense of things to begin with, and why it is that you can actually have what counts as a rational and reasonable view of things in one direction—I mean when it comes to fundamental metaphysical and other such things—that diverges completely from someone else’s. People start from the same basic experience, and yet some explain their lives one way while others explain their lives a different way. They may end up being in conflict with each other, but it’s danged hard to see how they made any kind of a misstep according to the internal logic they’re operating from. This is because they themselves, in their existential reality, aren’t encompassed by that. They’re just kind of taking certain data and thinking through it according to certain assumptions and principles and modes of logic. And I might say, well, you came to this conclusion about life and reality. I can see how you got there. Maybe you were true to your understanding of the facts and the data that presented themselves the whole way. But oh, this other person ended up somewhere completely different in their understanding, and maybe they followed the rules of logic and rationality as well. This is possible because, as I said, none of these things, no paradigm, can actually capture the essence of reality itself. That’s why you can have all these variable, conflicting viewpoints. In the end they’re just mental constructs, and the raw reality of each person as a person stands beyond it all, just shining there, so to speak, as the fact of your immediate first-person experience.
On waking up from the trance of consensus reality
Consensus reality is a hallucination. It’s a trance. Anything that resembles a reality or a view of reality that is imposing itself from without, from outside of you, that is trying to tell you what’s real from the vantage point of the objective, external world that you appear to inhabit, is in fact a sucker punch. It’s a trick. Actually, the outside world isn’t even the outside world. It exists inside you as pure consciousness. So really, the objective perspective is an inverted view of things that is attempting to undermine the reality of your situation, which is that you are not a separate individual inhabiting a world. You are absolute, pure awareness, and the world is sort of a virtual experience arising within you, including your experience or your perception of being a separate individual unit, a separate being within it. So, coming back to the matter of consensus reality, if your view of things diverges from whatever the consensus reality is in the cultural environment that you presently inhabit, well, certainly that’s going to make you seem like an outlier to other people.
The societal consequences may be severe. But then, the societal reality that you perceive is actually something that’s unfolding within the field of your own being. You know, I adhere to a non-dual understanding of things. So really, one of the best ways to wake up is to wake up to the consensus trance and then let this make you question even more fundamental things, such as the idea that you are a separate individual existing in a societal circumstance with other individuals. That idea is only true on a relative level. The stronger reality is that this is all something like a projection that you’re inhabiting. When you understand that, it becomes much easier to maintain your own center, if in fact your perspective is not aligning with the signals you’re receiving from the apparent outside that tell you you should think a certain way.
Consensus reality is a hallucination, a trance. The objective perspective is an inverted view of things that is attempting to undermine the reality of your situation.
Ultimately, this is all some kind of virtual existence. This is confirmable not by empirical investigation but by simply and actually taking a look at the reality of your situation as a perspective. From the moment your eyes opened on this experience, you’ve been something where experiences are unfolding, where experiences present themselves, including the experience of looking outward from this particular perspective and having these bodily feelings, these sensations, plus this apparently inner world of subjective impressions and imaginations and so on. The investigation of that apparent outside world is just the investigation of this appearance that has presented itself from the moment consciousness arose, at the birth of this form. So it all kind of hooks together in the end. These are what I consider to be the basics. That’s how I keep reinforcing my own center. That’s the stability that I keep coming back to.
On the deception of scientism: reading consciousness out of reality
Scientism is what happens when what should be recognized simply as the means by which something is done or something is learned morphs incorrectly into the logic that guides the understanding of what is being done. So you have a situation where, sure, the scientific method in its various versions and iterations is useful for examining the physical, material level of reality. It’s like a filter that one applies. You have the totality of experience presented to you and to other people from their perspectives, and you say, “How are we going to understand this aspect of it, the physical material part?” Okay, we come up with something we call the scientific method, which is actually a number of different methods, but then that’s the filter we apply.
And it’s as if we forget that it’s a filter we’re applying, and now we say that only what passes through the filter is actually something that counts as reality. So, in effect, what you’ve done is to apply a great screening mechanism to remove certain things from your map of reality, and then you claim that reality itself is only what appears on that reduced map. It’s a simple trick to play on yourself. But it’s interesting how difficult it can be to extricate yourself from it. Most of us in modern Western and much of global civilization inhabit a cultural situation where we’re programmed with something like scientism from the time we’re little. So it takes quite a while of excavating to reach a point where you recognize just how many different ways it’s still lurking behind your basic view of things.
Scientism has its own dogma, which is very well concealed, because, as I say, the logic of something that is simply a filter you apply to reality becomes lost to view. People have used the metaphor of the eyeglasses that you put on and then forget you’re wearing them, so you forget that your vision is being affected. Now everything that you see seems to confirm your claim that only what is catchable by the net of science has any kind of reality at all. Everything else is dismissed as just hallucination, just fantasy, just wishful thinking.
What you’ve done is to apply a great screening mechanism to remove certain things from your map of reality, and then you claim that reality itself is only what appears on that reduced map. It’s a simple trick to play on yourself. But it’s interesting how difficult it can be to extricate yourself from it.
Of course, this doesn’t just affect religion, and it doesn’t just filter out religion traditionally conceived. That same scientistic attitude will eventually filter the entire qualitative human subjective experience and the human subject him- or herself out of the map of reality. And that was the major part of the alienation and existential despair that started to grip people in the West beginning in the 20th century, when suddenly we had this attitude of nihilism rising, just as Nietzsche had predicted in the late nineteenth century. And it happened because this thing that we had come to think of as being just reality itself was actually a filtered refraction of it that seemed to have no qualitative component.
We all can read the great works that were written about this. The books that wanted to tell us that even the people who were the scientists doing the research and writing the books were not really thinking subjects. Ultimately, you end up with a kind of pure behaviorism in the mode of B. F. Skinner. It says all we can know about people is their surface behaviors. And I say, oh, really? What about you? Who are you, the one making that claim? Are you saying you don’t exist? You’ve just read yourself out of existence.
On Chapel Perilous and the daemon muse
In the Chapel Perilous experience, whose terminology comes from Arthurian legend and the quest for the Holy Grail, you have what can seem like a mystical experience. You enter the Chapel, metaphorically speaking, when you come into contact with what feels like an external source of guidance, as in Robert Anton Wilson’s sense of being spoken to by the dog star Sirius. But then you enter that liminal state where you realize that you can’t know if this is really real. You can’t know if your mind or imagination is manufacturing this experience and just presenting it as an objective-seeming event, or if it’s really there. And boy, then you have got an interesting dilemma on your hand. And it’s the type of thing where someone can quite literally go insane if it goes wrong and if they’re unable to hash it out. And it’s also the kind of thing that can be a source of enormous vitality. And that is where my entire concept and model of the daemon muse has gone.
We’re talking about the relationship between the island consciousness of the ego and the wider sea of psychic stuff and identity that surrounds it. In that sense, the demon or the muse is completely real.
I find great fascination, and this plays into great creative fire and energy, in the very fact of keeping front and center the recognition that because of the subjective position we inhabit, it’s impossible to know whether anything like some objective reality of a spirit, an entity, whatever you want to call it—that is, the daemon muse—exists and is speaking to us, or whether it’s something that we’re manufacturing in imagination. I can zoom out and say that, from the understanding of psychology and experience that we’ve been talking about, clearly we’re talking about the relationship between the island consciousness of the ego and the wider sea of psychic stuff and identity that surrounds it. In that sense, the demon or the muse is completely real. But how real? Should we look at it as a really independent intelligence that might actually assume the form of a being? I don’t know. Chapel Perilous. There you are. And not resolving it, not trying to come down on one side or the other, has been helpful to me.
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Religion, horror, and creativity at the intersection of nonduality and the daemon muse. By a cosmic horror author and former English professor.