The Syntheist must have SLACK!
A Retroactive Meditation on the Future of Religion
Q: What is the Church of the SubGenius?
1 - Prologue
SYNTHEISM (look it up) is a religious movement for our epoch. It places on the altar of its inner sanctum such charming ornaments as networks, contingency, dividuals, events & the collaborative production of sacred culture.
Sytheism embraces a fourfold Divinity (that I might half-jokingly describe as: the god you DON’T see when you look around, the god you DO see when you look around, the god-feeling & the god you have to assemble yourself) and it is self-consciously adapted to the specific mood, problems and technologies of our currently emerging world.
The CHURCH OF THE SUBGENIUS, on the other hand, is a 20th-century American joke religion that worships a self-mocking salesman named “Bob” and devotes itself to a mystical power known only as “slack.”
The SubGenius, they say, must have slack.
If we put a syntheist (or “religion-that-isn’t-a-region” or “integral postmetaphysical religion” or “metamodern spirituality”) spin in this old piece of nonsense will it tell us anything interesting about the Spirit of the Apocalyptarian Age?
2 - Church of the WHAT ???
ON JULY 5, 1998 THE WORLD CAME TO AN END -- according to the Dallas-based Church of the SubGenius. Apparently, the white nerd-evangelists who made that original prophecy did not expect their “joke religion” to still be around at the end of the 20th century. So they did the only reasonable thing.
They started claiming that the world really DID end. In an almost Hegelian twist, they reversed the negative into a strange new affirmation that should make a lot of sense to the people that I have called Apocalyptarians in a previous substack article. We are the people who (armed with liminal, developmental, integrative & meta-thinking) nonetheless still have to live in the uncanny overlap between radical world shifts and everyday life.
It is very odd that Catastrophe and Transformation are constantly announced, even highly plausible, and yet we frequently continue to live in relatively normal circumstances.
Real disruptions are coming, of course, but the curious double-frame, a world that is unbelievably both reliable and unreliable, is already here. This doubled reality is already commonplace. We still have the lingering context of the bizarre planetary civilization when we are alone in the deep forest. We still continue to live although our death is already assured.
The liminality between perspectives, and between worlds, is pervasive and seems to be growing more explicit. And in order to inhabit this reality more completely, we may need to mutate into something like amphibians. Dwellers in the double-world.
Part of my work -- perhaps our work -- is to become a better inhabitant of this juxtaposed reality. Setting that inquiry before ourselves leads us to a general study of inhabitation. Too much, I think, has already been said about awareness. We continue to do things even though we are “aware” that they are foolish and dangerous and embedded in the wrong kinds of systems. Knowing what goes on, being aware, being informed, is not the same as being able to inhabit the current and emerging world. There is an epidemic of pseudo-indigeneity.
People are not really local, not really native, in the changing situation of our biosphere and technosphere. Traditional inhabitation heuristics (How long have you or your people lived here? Are you recognized officially as indigenous or as citizens?) are increasingly inadequate. Identity-claims are not the same as the embodied, experiential and intelligent inhabitation of a technological, social, bio-regional and temporal niche -- especially when our contexts are constantly shifting.
Are you a citizen of the internet? How much of it have you actually explored?
Do your people claim a territory? How many of the native plants have you cultivated and tasted? How many of the rivers have you been in?
How many of us have even explored the nearby streets of our cities?
Have you viscerally assimilated any of the new scientific, informational and cultural realities that characterize our epoch?
It is no longer possible to wait for several generations in order to enable people to anchor themselves in a place. And many “local peoples” of all kinds have almost no contact with the complexity of their changing environments. Inhabiting is something to be praised when we see it but also something we all need to get better at doing more richly and more quickly.
New religion, whether it calls itself that or not, speaks to our legitimate need to figure out how to inhabit the simultaneously continuous and disrupted world of today and tomorrow. We need to be dialoguing, pondering and experimenting toward a future religiosity that maintains the peaks, depths and cultural utility of the best examples of historical religion while also mutating to fit the new conditions of world and heart.
What can we learn about our own task by inspecting the archaeological husks of yeasterda’s “crazy new religions” ?
3 - A Detour into the Psychedelic History of Future Religion
The last time I ingested a serious amount of psilocybin fungi was a great many years ago on a forest path around a large, confier-shrouded lake on Vancouver Island. I was joined by a delightful Samoan, his young friend and a large plastic bag of Amazonian mushrooms.
They took only small, cautious amounts. I had intended to do likewise but, alas, I absent-mindedly gobbled down the Stropharia cubensis like potato chips whilst my companions pestered me with enthusiastic questions about my views on the relationship between brains, biospheres, spirit & entheogenic molecules.
At about the same time that I realized — with a sickening lurch in my stomach —the bag was now completely empty, I began to spin out beyond the world into an oscillating circuitry that seemed to contain (rather than be contained by) my total field of perception and cognition. Sound familiar?
My private experience was that of being swept back and forth between the local situation (walking and talking on the trail) and some whirling multiverse. My own contemplative practices and endogenous altered states provided some preparation but it is still highly disconcerting. Whenever I momentarily sloshed back into my body I found that I could not be certain whether I had returned to the same universe or not.
More importantly -- was it a good universe?
Anxiously, I devised a plan to test reality.
If I came out of the multivalent quantum state among my forest companions, I would utter a magickal code phrase, “21st-century temple!” and then carefully scrutinize their faces looking for subtle signs of either a good-humored glimmer or a worrying perplexity.
If the result was not correct, I would let myself whirl back into the multi-whorl cosmos and try the reality next door. It seemed to me, of course, that I did this thousands upon thousands of times but it likely only happened once and then echoed through the mirrored corridors of neural eternity.
At any rate, the phrase 21st-Century Temple has remained with me ever since.
It was a mystery then, but we know some general things about this temple today. It has to integrate different genres and classes of society in a way that establishes an additional degree of shared meaning and motivation. It has to provide all the social, well-being and mystical opportunities of classical and shamanic religion. It has to be able to enfold and live with gaps, darkness, paradoxes, animality, plurality, ambiguity, cognitive dissonance, science, philosophy and esoteric practice. And somehow it has to deeply root itself in the landscape of the current and emerging condition of the world.
Where do we learn to do things like this?
One possible source of wisdom for inhabiting the 21st century may be to examine, with fresh eyes, the successes, failures and hunches of our 20th-century precursors.
The Church of the SubGenius, however trivial and unserious they might seem, was one such ancestor -- a loose network of experimental religionists proposing a mood meant to help certain kinds of people thrive in a trans-ironic multidimensional apocalypse.
Their messiah -- a grinning, quasi-malevolent super-salesman named JR “Bob” Dobbs -- was proposed as the proto-integrative suture that holds together the uncanny conflicting frames of juxtaposed reality.
While their solution was not as serious, deep or complex as we need in order to handle what we are really facing, their half-assed religion-that-is-not-a-religion is at least strange enough to be considered.
So let’s consider them a little and see what happens…
4 - Skip the Details
Meanwhile in the late 1970s, in Texas, a cabal of free-range deconstructionists produced the first literature of an anti-religion that soon got out of hand. The Church of the SubGenius was born. This motley, low-budget mixture of William Burroughs, Jacques Lacan, L. Ron Hubbard, HP Lovecraft and classical American evangelical religion produced a trans-ironic collage bible (The Book of the SubGenius) and a Dadaist indoctrination video (“Arise!”) full of self-undermining memes purporting to train weirdos, outliers and spiritual mutants to prosper under the coming waves of apocalypse, conspiracy and hyperdimensional distortions of human reality.
That’s a great paragraph — read it again.
Very promising. But the Church’s shortcomings are obvious. It is outdated, half-hearted, too American, too White, too Evangelical, too 80s, too adolescent, too trashy, too vitriolic. They don’t seem to deeply grieve or break their hearts. Actual esoteric practice is missing. Etc.
But what did it get right?
Is there anything we can learn from their attempt? Are there possible upgrades to their accidental successes? Does it make any sense to ask what a dark renaissance, integrative metamodern Church of the SubGenius would be like? Is there anything we can learn from these discarded loonies?
In this section I will extrapolate some of their key doctrines:
JR “Bob” Dobbs is the avataric embodiment of a previous wave of cultural confidence -- coming forward to oversee the undermining and self-destabilizing of the old Order.
When Americans back in the 1970s and 80s reviewed their brief post-WWII renaissance they glimpsed all the inchoate surplus jouissance of a triumphal society that had just reorganized, remixed, collectively suffered and upgraded itself in a golden haze of militarized, electro-modernist swagger that gave us a man on the moon, the sexual revolution, color television & rock-and-roll.
The lost vitality, futurism and faith of that haunting post-war cultural moment is something even the cynical founders of the Church of the SubGenius would like to regenerate. Religion is not about returning to traditional culture, of course, but it does nonetheless require that we achieve as much harmony, excessive psychological energy and apotheotic collaborative dynamics as they did — but using our current technology, knowledge and social sensibilities.
Bob is the self-satisfied, mainstream patriarchal protagonist of (Blue Church) “Game A” systems mysteriously turned into an ultra-subversive rebel. He is the mad prince of modern privileges now offering — for a price! — to shepherd the emerging postmodern generations through the gateway of multidimensional upheaval.
This principle of the neo-revolutionary folkloric conventionalist might be very easy to generalize. The half-serious, half-parody Middle Eastern saint Mulla Nasruddin is a golden figure of folklore whose paradoxical antics and nonsensical perversions of old-school utterances were treated as worthy wisdom-sayings in numerous early 20th century esoteric communities.
Can we use the metamodern principle of sincere irony to recapture the successful agency of previous cultural periods to help us probe an unsettling new reality for liberating forms of new integrative coherence?
The Xists are creepy-but-sexy, hyperdimensional “aliens” who catalyzed Bob’s mutant power (of super-salesmanship) but also destroyed our world in 1998 CE.
As skeptical as we must be — about both our own weird experiences and various reports from other deranged human beings — nonetheless, we find (as Carl Jung did) that the UFO/UAP/Anomalous phenomena might be a key organizing archetype for our epoch.
My pal Sean Haargens (the integrative metatheorist behind the Institute for Exostudies) doesn’t think we can collective do any advanced sensemaking without seriously grappling with the ontological challenge of those “things” that do not obey conventional physics and even ignore basic distinctions between one/many & internal/external.
We may legitimately scoff at the many “UFO cults” of the 20th century but, perhaps, they were clumsily sensing an authentic role that transhuman ambiguity will play in establishing the intelligence, myths and necessary vexations that may make us capable of living deep into the strange days of the latter 21st century.
“Very well, Jehovah -- it’s a deal,” said Bob, in orbit high above the Earth. And we trust him to have gotten us a good deal — or at least the best one possible under the circumstances.
The simultaneity of the Axial Gods and analogs to the Lovecraftian Cthulhu Mythos is central to SubGenius iconography. Yahweh operates in the same space as Dagon, Yog-Sothoth, Kali and even old Quetzacoatl. The normalized control gods of aspirational Western history are put in play alongside the dark, psychedelic and difficult-to-conceive gods of high paganism and postmodern deconstruction.
Once you have decided that “God” is an anthropomorphic nonhuman intelligence that we collective exploit in order to secure our freedom from the seething pluralistic and inhuman chaos of reality, then it takes only a little more imagination to propose that we consciously bargain with this twisted alien super-ego to secure His help in preserving sanity and gaining power (at least for the chosen few) within the quasi-apocalypse that is our new life.
Devivals, or de-evolutionary anti-religious revivals, are the experimental form of religious gathering for the Church of the SubGenius. Individual nonsense, glossolalia, decentralizing rant-practice, anti-aesthetics and improvisational surrealism are encouraged — as long they group around the chaotic network attractors of Bob and Slack.
In a McGilchrist future (where the metaphors of left & right brain are combined) we undoubtedly will need our rituals to be plural, fluid and experimental combinations of both conscious and unconscious intelligence brought together in ways that both exalt and challenge our aspirational norms about religion and sanity.
The doctrine of slack — pictured above? — is both diverse and creepy. Slack is a precious quality of almost stupid good-timing that THEY steal from you (and then try to sell you back a trickle of it).
Slack is less than nothing but it FEELS like getting something for nothing!
It's getting what you want by “falling into what you thought you didn't want.” The unforced decontraction of the saints (but with more sex and cheeseburgers) transliterated as a general skill available to the creative adherents of post-tragic self-esteem.
What do you hope you’ll get when you fleetingly wonder about closing your eyes while driving?
It is better to be lucky (or antifragile) than good?
What would happen if you stopped not-enjoying your jouissance?
Yet this essential magical quality is under siege. The inherited Conspiracy of Normals and Pinks is stealing it from you and trying (without even understanding what it really is) to sell it back to you as the golden aura of McDonald’s french fries and Apple products.
So be alert for false and minimal slack, trivialized, sold back to you as some necessary renormalization (get rid of the terrible president, get the invader to withdraw from someone’s country, reopen the businesses that were unnecessary closed, get another hit of cocaine to replace the one you just lost) because they want to keep you on the old treadmill with the smallest possible outlay of what the old system steals from our full humanity.
THEY don’t understand slack but WE do — with Bob’s help!
Note: Slack is not mere ease. It is a nondual phenomenon that readily coincides with full tautness. THEY want you to believe in absolute opposites.
Outliers are mutant seeds of next-level consciousness. In the frivolous Americanism of the 1980s people re-inhabited the notion of the weirdo, geek and outsider as primary forms of experimental social status and self-worth.
With the blithe insouciance of privileged postmodern adolescents, the Church founders went a step beyond the all-competing normalcy claims of classical religions and instead joined the avant-garde in a declaration of the superiority of abnormality.
What new space was primitively held open for us by circus freaks, contrarians, nerds and sexual deviants?
What bridge exists between the post-postmoderns and their odd friends and family members who are barely treading water in the ontological flooding?
Can the primitive and bedevilled cultural mutants of yesteryear stand among our new elders?
Are we still called upon to be deliberately perverse in order to escape capture by any of the “worldviews” or “systems” or “levels” ?
The apocalypse already happened — and still IS happening. The simple-minded founders of the Church, trying to build a plausible escape hatch for themselves, prophesied the end of the world at the hands of the aliens in 1998. They even tried to kill Bob. No such luck.
After this ominous date passed by peacefully, they did the only sane thing -- claim that the world DID come to an end on that date. This is very apocalpytarian. It has happened, will happen, is ongoing AND isn’t what you think.
The apocalypse is not a special future date but rather it names the singularity into which we have already entered — and to which we must adapt. We are already strayed into the so-called metacrisis. Postponement is not an option. Back to normal is not an option. Yet here we are! How peculiar…
The “stark first of removal” taketh away the sins of the world but picketh your pocket in the process.
The active force of Atheos (a Syntheist trope) and the Philosophy of Lack are moving through the world like that same unsettling galactic beam or metaphorical pressure wave that I have pointed to in my interventions around “apocaplytarians.”
More than any single loss (obviously all things rise and pass away) we are dealing here with the basic disruptive removal that Nietzsche called the “death of God.”
Our horizon has been wiped away. Something has removed the presumed stability parameters of our legacy notion of normality.
Inevitable climate disruption? Loss of institutional trust? Empty temples? Fundamental cultural alienation? Information itself is unreliable? Math is racist? The stark fist of removal is doing its work.
And the true SubGenius, with enough slack, may receive a share of the “cash” it takes out of the world…
Take back CONSPIRACY theory by self-enthusiastically treating all insufficiencies, crimes and soul-dragging conditions (at all scales) as a singular, self-consistent and intentional phenomenon that a sincerely ironic THEY have foisted upon you unjustly.
Will this help us simultaneously tap into the paranoid but vital myth-webs of premodern peoples while reinforcing our Dionysian critical-play? It’s worth at least considering...
Rather than abandoning conspiracy theories as unrealistic, un-collegial or publicly demonized, we instead embrace this natural form of semi-conscious mythical psycho-art. Instead of leaving it in the hands of predictable, regressive, mediocre and fear-driven adherents of the pro-narrative-and-anti-narrative forces dwelling at the social surface, we take it over as a free energy subordinate to our new mutational sensibility.
What does it look like if all puzzling evidence and all the thwarts in your personal life, cultural life and spiritual life ARE treated as a single particular and pseudo-purposeful entity?
As they say in the Church, “Pull the wool over your OWN eyes for a change!”
A SUBgenius — as the Church’s Dadaesque indoctrination video makes clear — does not mean being “just below a genius” but, rather, it points at the much more extraordinary opportunity: to be a genius in the domain of the sub-things.
The liminal under-garments of reality.
From in-jokes to hypnotherapy, from hypnagogic hallucinations to surrealistic juxtapositions and shamanic underworlds, this bardo-based bastion of in-betweens and overlaps must surely have some relevance to those diverse meta-communities who pride themselves on that funny feeling of whatever “either/or” & “both/and” have in common…
5 - The Religion of Tomorrow’s Lack
All these curious “doctrines” exhibit a certain aesthetic sensibility. They favor the paradoxical, retro-futurist, mock-conventional, trans-epochal, a-temporal, vintage creepiness, glorified self-aware suspiciousness, sliding signifiers, stream of consciousness, disconcerting juxtaposition, etc.
Although this is clearly not the highwater mark of metamodern artistry, there are nonetheless enough provocative parallels to prompt our pondering. The attempt to carry irony and anti-aesthetics forward, toward a place where these qualities become newly baptized as sincere, useful and quasi-religious without losing their disruptive and subconscious implication (Deleuze: “Style is that quality possessed by those of whom we say: They have no style!”) is very suggestive.
We — if such as “we” exists — join these outdated malcontents in trying to admit (and fold in) what is missing or unpresented in the world & ourselves. Are we senseless? Are we incomplete? Is our God not really real? Perhaps THAT can be the ground upon which something new is built…
Strange loops of Lack and the twisted allure of the Hegelian dialectic peek out at us from one signature moment in Church’s infamous training video in which one of their founders tries to explain Bob.
“Bob,” he says, shrugging, “is… fill-in-the-blank.” He means that Bob can be whatever you want. You can connect it to anything. Okay, but it doesn’t stop there. We watch this guy, in real-time, negating the negatio
He instinctively takes ownership of it and then loudly restates his previous claim with an admirable confidence and newly transfigured emphasis:
“Bob IS fill-in-the-blank!”
This enfolded thwart, this active negation, this overt advertisement of their own lack converted into (and thereby revealing its intimate connection with) perverse promises of jouissance, sane insanity and adaptive good cheer under the conditions of a world destabilized by the very people who promise to stabilize it is a giddy hint at the range of evolving trans-oppositions that may form the very substance of tomorrow’s worldview.
Whoever sees the need to solve the personal and collective meaning crisis must bear in mind that the great (and sometimes truly divinizing) religious movements that human beings have periodically participatorily co-created must have seemed ludicrous during their start-up phase and must have, structurally, been able to turn the inherent incompleteness of human ways-of-being into some preposterous possibility of triumph.
So put on your Freudian slip, glance sideways into the sidereal realm and grab Goebbel’s proverbial gun, because the kind of world we are now living in can only be described as a serious joke.
It will break your heart. It will change who you are. It will ultimately kill everyone you care about. But it is also magical, hilarious, erotic, creative and (almost) transcendent. It is stable and unstable. We are doomed and not doomed. So we must become amphibians to inhabit this double-reality.
"Bob” is the meta-narrator we cannot do without… but who may have gone insane.
“Bob” is the passport office that grants dual-citizenship to those who live both inside & outside of apocalpyses.
“Bob” is a lingering reminder of the self-undermining spirit of trans-conscious self-affirmation that may characterize the spiritual self-confidence of the deconstructed day-after-tomorrow.
“Bob” is any figurehead, any symbol, any shared cultural movement that already lives in the uncanny juxtaposition of the implicit future — and wants to leverage its peculiarities as adaptive features of that strangely imminent realm in which the underlying normalities of the previous paradigm truly no longer hold sway.
The Syntheist must have SLACK.