WHEN AN ADVERSARY ISN’T ENOUGH
Not that I know a word of Hebrew, but I’ve got a lot of people’s word for it that “satan”–a common noun rather than a name or title–means “adversary.”
Actually I’ve heard a few different translations, including “persecutor,” “enemy,” “accuser,” and my personal favorite, “stumbling block.”
But whatever the fine details, the general vibe remains the same. And Modern Satanists love this etymology–more and more often, the public face of Satanism is one of opposition.
And in my opinion that’s as it should be. But speaking purely for myself, as years go by I find that I need for Satan to be more than just that adversary. And, conveniently, I also find that he already is.
In the Penny Lane documentary Hail Satan?, TST Arizona’s Michelle Shortt articulates the common sentiment undergirding the Satanic Temple’s public positions:
“You see Christian theocracy creeping into our government, and it is our duty as the adversary to stand up to this.”
Writing about the film, the BBC notes that Modern Satanists “are leaning on the translation of the word Satan”–what would one expect a Satanic temple to do if not be adversarial?
Back in 2015, then-TST spokesperson Jex Blackmore told the Daily Beast “traditional dogmas often stand in stark opposition to reasoned moral positions,” so “we call ourselves Satanists with pride” as a bulwark against these bankrupt ideas.
Even Anti-Satanists will sometimes try to spin this to their imagined advantage. California pastor Bryan Griem–a creationist kook who actually has his own entry on a blog called the Encyclopedia of American Loons—whines that Satanism “is not a positive religion, but a deliberate adversary to ours.”
I’ll say it again: There’s nothing wrong with this concept. In fact, I’d be surprised if any Satanist did not adopt an oppositional stance.
For that matter, I’m surprised if any iconoclast doesn’t identify at least a little bit with the Satan myth. As weirdo 19th century preacher Moses Hull observed, “There has never been a reformer in the world who has not in some way been connected with the devil.”
And to the Bryan Griems of the world, I’d say–well, actually not much I guess. This is a guy who thinks “gay pride is an oxymoron” and that Barack Obama was never elected president, so I’d probably have a more productive afternoon going around pushing on doors marked “pull.”
Be that as it may, the weasel-word Anti-Satanist argument that a doctrine of opposition isn’t valid in itself is another clear case of religious privilege in action.
Performative displays of opposition to the supposedly sinful and bankrupt status quo lie at the very heart of Abrahamic religions. And fundy rackets make more racket about this than anyone else. As usual, holy hucksters have one set of standards for themselves and another for everyone else.
It’s no surprise that opposition to power abuses attracts a lot of people to Modern Satanism. But speaking purely for myself, I do find I need more than that to keep things going. As our own Simone Lasher says, “Atheism tells you what we don’t believe in, Satanism tells you what we do believe.” Where in Satanism do we find those positive, assertive values?
As is very often the case on this blog, this is where I lean on my own classicalist impulses. I find guidance and enlightenment in the words of writers like Jules Michelet, who wrote that “Satan as the chief outlaw imparts to his own the pleasures of natural freedom, the wild delight of living in a world sufficient unto itself.”
Or George Bernard Shaw–cantankerous SOB though he was–whose Lucifer observes “the world’s sympathies are all with misery, with poverty, with starvation of the body and of the heart. I call on it to sympathize with joy, with love, with happiness, with beauty.”
Or Mark Twain, whose archly critical archangel Satan “makes admiring remarks about the creator’s sparkling industries–remarks which, being read between the lines, were sarcasms” and becomes baffled on learning that people imagine heaven as a place without sex.
But you don’t need to peer into the works of dead authors (white guys to the last man) to find Satanic values. Just a week ago at our HELL-O-WEEN benefit show in San Francisco, our own Brigid Breed voiced the mandate “that we may live as we desire, guided by empathy, compassion and reason.”
Five days after that, Satanic doo-wop band Twin Temple played a Halloween concert in San Francisco and invoked the power of “dominion over ourselves, so that we may rule as kings and queens over our own bodies and our own sexuality.”
And just a few hours ago, Sadie Satanas preached via Twitter, “Satan loves girldick.” That’s not as wordy as Shaw or Twain, but no less eloquent.
Returning to the example of the Satanic Temple, we see what values they extract from the idea of Satan: “compassion, empathy, wisdom, justice, science.”
What I’m driving at is that Satan is a big enough idea for more than one theme. Satanism is the adversarial spirit of the age; it’s the power of personal affirmation, queer rights, feminism, or empirical reason; it’s a myth that represents society’s most telling fears; it’s artistic and pop cultural shorthand for the subversive and the macabre, etc.
We may feel pressure to narrowly and specifically define out beliefs, our identities, and ourselves. And indeed, if we don’t express ourselves with some minimal specificity, we can end up adrift.
But it’s the nature of words, ideas, people, and, yes, religions, to rarely be just one thing. Anyone who says otherwise is inviting an adversarial response.