Defending Paper Gods

Aleister Crowley and the Reception of Daoism in Early Twentieth Century Esotericism

Johan Nilsson

Abstract
This article explores the representation of Daoism and Chinese religion in the writings of Aleister Crowley. The influence of Asian religions on the occult revival of the late nineteenth century has often been recognized. Even though much has been said about the perception of Indian religious traditions in European and American esotericism, the influence of Chinese religion on the same environment remains lesser known. At a time when the Theosophical Society started Buddhist schools in Ceylon, Crowley traveled through China arguing with Christian missionaries and sleeping in Daoist temples. Later he praised Laozi as a saint in his Gnostic Mass, proclaimed Daoism “the best of all [mystical] systems” and claimed to have received the original and uncorrupted version of the Daodejing in a religious vision; all this in an intellectual climate where Chinese religion was widely viewed as stagnant and escapist superstition. Although engaging in aggressive anti- missionary polemics Crowley was actually locked in a position of simultaneous rejection of and dependence on missionary Sinology; a form of dependence deeply intertwined with trends of modernity and secularization in early twentieth century Western esotericism.

Keywords
Aleister Crowley; Daoism; Travel writing; Western esotericism; Western reception of Chinese religion

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