It doesn’t take much to be called a Satanist these days. Just run for office, become an atheist, complain about sexual assault, or be gay or trans, and a fundamentalist will dutifully stick the horns on you.

For those of us who go through the extra trouble of actually being Satanists, it’s almost annoying.

But we can’t get too angry at the fundies. This is just what they do; birds must fly, fish must swim, etc.

In fact, the entire reason we have the words “Satan” and “Satanist” at all is because kooks needed to know what to call the people who scare them the most.


origin of satan elaine pagels

Seems like there should have been a lot of other options already, but here we are.


In her book 1995 The Origin of Satan, Princeton professor Elaine Pagels argues that the devil began his life as a sociopolitical tool.

Satan doesn’t get much spotlight time in traditional Jewish belief; other than in Job, he’s a bit player, with a vaguely defined role. But when fundamentalist Jewish sects living under Roman occupation needed something extra to vilify not only their occupiers but also their own countrymen, Pagels says they seized on the devil.

Radical groups want a clean break,” Laura Geggel writes on Live Science. “So they describe their enemies as devils who will face god’s wrath.”

Satan, as Pagels writes, is not just the enemy, he’s the enemy you recognize, the fellow who is like you superficially but villainous in all the ways that count.

In parables of fallen angels, these ancient people saw the image of other Jewish sects whom they deemed collaborators and heretics, or perhaps just insufficiently pious.

“It’s only when god’s people are divided that you get an angel who turns against the lord. It’s a way of defining your enemy as the enemy within,” Pagels told the Christian Science Monitor in 2012, pointing out that “Satan in the gospels is never identified with gentiles but only with Jews.”

And she observes that as the tent got bigger for the obscure Jewish breakaway groups that would become mainstream Christianity, there were soon more corners for devils to hide in.


origin of satan elaine pagels

Scapegoat anyone?


“For Pagels, demonization is a crucial and terrifying component of Christianity,” a 1995 New Yorker review of the book notes. “What began as a minority sect’s rhetorical strategy, a way of defining and asserting itself, became a majority religion’s moral and even psychological justification.”

So without knowing it, those ancient radicals founded a proud and obnoxious fundamentalist tradition that has endured for many eons now.

The paranoid hunt for the enemy within has continued almost unabated through the centuries: pagans, gnostics, heretics, apostates, witches–the carousel continues all the way up through the Satanic Panic of a few decades ago, which in turn became the conspiracy culture of the modern Internet.

Just as god always conveniently hates whatever his worshipers do, Satan very dutifully champions whatever pious people hate. That program continues to fulfill its function thousands of years later.

Living under this auspex is handy, since it means that your prejudices are not your fault. In fact, they’re not faults at all.

Your biases don’t meant you’re a hateful person. You just hate the devil is all; how could you not? What could be more reasonable? That’s what he’s there for after all.

The one handy thing about this for everyone else is that it inversely creates an easy formula for loving Satan instead. First, stop believing that he exists. (Most of you have this covered already.)

Second, become very comfortable with the idea that fundamentalist nutters don’t like you anyway. If anything, consider becoming overweeningly proud of this fact.

Just like in Roman-occupied Judea, the weirdos want a “clean break” from people like you and me. Well, we can arrange that.


origin of satan elaine pagels

This doesn’t look like our kind of party anyway.