Thursday, February 7, 2013

Number of the Beast

According to Jonathan Haidt's moral foundations theory, one of the main differences between liberal-minded and conservative-minded individuals is that conservatives give higher priority to what Haidt describes as the "sanctity/degradation" or "purity" axis of moral reasoning. While Haidt has at times argued that this means the moral framework of conservatives is more balanced, what he largely ignores is that a simplistic concrete emphasis on this sort of purity in many religious contexts is fundamentally stupid. Here's a case in point - a Tennessee man who quit his job twice over the number "666" appearing on routine tax forms.

A Tennessee man is so fed up with getting the number "666" on official forms that he's quit his job—twice. The latest incident occurred when his W-2 tax form bore the number, which the Bible associates with the Antichrist. The number on the tax form was related to the payroll mailing sequence at Contech Casting, but that doesn't matter to Walter Slonopas: "If you accept that number, you sell your soul to the devil," he tells the Tennessean. When he began working for Contech in 2011, he was given the number 666 to use for clocking in; he had it changed. When an alteration to the time-clock system made his number 666 three months later, he quit the job, but came back after the firm apologized. A rep for the company is "completely at a loss for words."


What's dumb about the purity axis in this context is that even though Revelation associates the number 666 with "the Beast" who will oppose God in the end times, there's no believable spiritual mechanism that means processing a form simply bearing the number means selling your soul to the devil. (1) Revelation is very clear that those who will be damned are those who accept the mark on their hand or forehead and (2) most theologians agree that that the Beast and the devil are not even the same individual, though horror movies often conflate them.

A similar issue arose with Muslim cab drivers in the Twin Cities years ago, who refused to carry passengers who had bottles of alcohol in their possession. Again, it's the purity ethic being stupid - Islam bans the consumption of alcohol, not the transport of bottles. And don't even get me started on the fundamentalist attitude towards "sexual purity" in many religious traditions which to my way of thinking only exists to justify men controlling women's lives.

The real "purity ethic" that spiritual practitioners should engage with is maintain a mind that is pure in the sense that it is not divided against itself. This forms one of the two components of coherence, which is the actual goal of spiritual practice - developing a mind that is both consistence and self-referential. But this practice has nothing to do with whether or not a tax form bears a particular number and everything to do with your overall state of consciousness.

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8 comments:

Aghor Pir said...

I guess someone forgot to send a memo to this Christian guy and to the Great Beast Crowley that the real number of the Beast is probably 616. I find it interesting that this guy keeps attracting 666 into his life. Maybe his obsession with it keeps attracting it into his reality as he is so focused on it and fears it.

Adesh!
-Aghor Pir

Scott Stenwick said...

It could very well be. Sometimes synchronicities are like that - the very thing you fear is what keeps popping up. It could also be, though, that it's simply a case of paying attention. I've seen many tax forms in the course of my life, and some of them could have had a 666 on them - I've just never noticed one way or the other.

Aleister Crowley's concept of the Beast is quite different from that in Revelation, particularly if the "real" number is 616 as some experts now claim. The point of 666 in Thelema is that it's the mystic number of the Sun and retains that symbolism regardless of whether or not it's actually mentioned in the Bible. As Crowley once commented when asked why he called himself 666, "It only means the Sun. You can call me 'little sunshine.'"

Aghor Pir said...

That comment from court records by Crowley always gives me a good chuckle. Although I understand that he made the connection between 666 and the Sun (as in the Magic Square of the Sun), I'm not entirely convinced that he didn't also link it to the Beast of Revelation. After all he was raised in a fundamentalist Christian home and I believe his mother used to call him the Great Beast (based on Revelations) before he adopted the title. Crowley reveled in linking many concepts together, making a play of words, and having a good laugh at the expense of others.

Adesh!
-Aghor Pir

Scott Stenwick said...

I know. I've always loved Crowley's sense of humor, especially for the time in which he lived.

Crowley did link his identification with 666 to Revelation in some of his commentaries, such as his reinterpretation of the apocalypse to fit the Aeon of Horus. But it seems to me the idea that Revelation was misunderstood as a catastrophe by those of the previous Aeon fits just fine with the observation that they messed up the number as well.

Hypnovatos said...

Self Fulfilling prophecy or no, the number 666 sure did end up being really bad for this guy ;)

i still like the myriad of directions this number has gone. 666, 616, 646. Using gematria in Hebrew, in Greek, even in english :p You have everything from Nero to a pope to presidents. You might as well pull a number out of a hat and attempt to scare people with it. Like say... 42!!!!

Scott Stenwick said...

It is, after all, the answer to life, the universe, and everything...

Dianne Williams said...

To each their own I suppose, I had 666 in my employee number once. It was fine with me. But what does "accept" mean. I would think accepting would have more to it than the number just randomly appearing on something, or being the next number in a sequence.

Scott Stenwick said...

See, that's the point I was getting at about the "purity ethic." It's essentially the idea that having anything to do with things that are "impure" by some standard "pollutes" you in some way. So just being associated with, say, the number 666 harms you, even if you disapprove of what you think it represents.

Relying on the literal version of this ethic is not moral balance, it's pointless superstition. You can see it in a lot of other places, too, especially surrounding various social issues in politics. For example, how allowing same-sex partners to marry has anything to do with my opposite-sex marriage completely escapes me. But somebody who is superstitious about purity might honestly believe that living in a society with married same-sex couples could give them spiritual cooties.