I received a notification today from the Center for Studies on New Religions that some of the papers presented at their 2010 conference in Torino were available online. One of them caught my eye, and after reading it I recognized that it dovetails with the subject matter of TheoFantastique. The paper is by Melanie J. van Oort and it is titled “‘I am the God of Everything:’” The Development of (Self)-Destructive Panenanthropism in Popular Youth Culture.”
In the paper van Oort discusses panenanthropism, the radical monistic belief that the individual mind is the only reality which then projects and creates perceptions of reality beyond it, and connects it to various forms of esotericism, most recently and influentially in the “Seth material,” a collection of esoteric and metaphysical documents written by Jane Roberts said to be under the influence of a disembodied entity. Van Oort also finds the influences of panenanthropism in science fiction and fantasy, particularly in violent video games like Doom. For van Oort, when panenthropism combines in an unstable individual with repetitious play of violent science fiction and fantasy games like Doom, the individual can engage in violent acts on others. Van Oort argues that this is the case with Eric Harris and Dennis Klebold, the two infamous teenagers responsible for the Columbine High School tragedy.
This was the first I had heard of panenanthropism within esotericism. A brief Internet search did find it mentioned within the description of an interesting doctoral research project titled “The Gods of Destruction and the Creation of the New Age: Self-Sacrifice and Self-Divinization in Holistic Esotericism from Antiquity to Modernity.” It is also mentioned in the book by B. J. Gibbons titled Spirituality and the occult: from the Renaissance to the twentieth century (Routledge, 2001). I’ve printed the dissertation summary out for my files and hope to follow this research thread in the future.
In critical reflection on van Oort’s paper I would raise questions in regards to two related areas. First, van Oort argues for something of a cause and effect relationship between violent video games and violent behavior citing an academic article from 2000 as support. As far as I understand the matter, the issue is debatable in terms of whether video games contribute to or cause violent behavior, or whether violent people aside from such video games engage in violence anyway and just happen to also play violent video games as well. As someone who has blown up plenty of virtual enemies in a variety of gaming formats over the years I have yet to move beyond the virtual to engage in such acts in the real world, and this is true of the vast majority of game players.
Second, van Oort indicts science fiction and fantasy narratives for creating a realm of the imagination where the violent possibilities of panenanthropism can be realized, and states that young people have a difficult time in separating fantasy from reality. Thus it would seem that many science fiction and fantasy narratives must be considered potentially dangerous, at least if esotericism which incorporates panenanthropism spreads through popular culture through such venues. Certainly very young children may have trouble at times distinguishing between fantasy and reality, but even my grandson is able to tell the difference between Star Wars and Transformer villains and those in the real world. Here a little parental and grandparental guidance is needed, along with a sound mind and balanced psychological disposition from all involved. I’m also fairly certain that most game players aren’t detecting, yet alone adopting, a panenanthropic metaphysic.
I was somewhat surprised by this article in that CESNUR usually includes presenters and papers from which I find very little wiggle room for disagreement. I would have liked to have heard this paper presented, and then listened to any questions from those in the audience as well as the responses from van Oort. I leave it to my readers for further reflection on feedback as religious studies overlaps with popular culture entertainment.