WHO PUT THE “SATAN” IN SATANISM?
Why do we call it “Satanism?”
This is not a trick question, although there may be tricky answers–likely as many answers as there are Satanists. This fractured perspective is actually a big part of the appeal (and perhaps the point) of Modern Satanism to begin with.
That being the case, how does one Satanist know what kind of Satanism another is practicing? How do we know that it’s “real” Satanism? How do we know that we would approve?
The answer, of course, is that we don’t. Arguably it’s none of our business, and in any case, there are no tools to enforce orthodoxy, nor much desire to here. I’m content to leave other people’s personal demons up to them.
With one exception.
When I first read about the Satanic Temple, I was confused. Their Seven Tenets sounded good: “compassion,” “empathy,” “science,” “justice,” “wisdom,” all easy to love. But what did any of it have to do with Satan?
I had previously read (and mostly dismissed) old Anton LaVey’s Satanic Bible, but the difference between that and this seemed as dramatic as night and day-drinking. Temple spokespersons often referred to a “Romantic Satan,” but I’d read the Romantics in college and didn’t remember Satanism coming up in class, except of course for when I brought up Satanism in class.
In short, I simply Didn’t Get It. Like the waistband of my pre-quarantine slacks, my concept of what “Satan” meant was just too small for what was it was being called on to do.
But then I did something that many critics, both Satanists and Anti-Satanists alike, rarely bother with: I studied some relevant sources. Since the now-obscure 20th century French satirical novel The Revolt of the Angels kept coming up, I read it, and about two-thirds of the way in I discovered this:
“Satan showed in his various manifestations all the strength and beauty which it is given to mortals to conceive. […] On all he bestowed loving-kindness and grace, and they followed him drunk with joy and beauty. He planted the vine and showed mortals how to crush the grapes underfoot to make the wine flow. Magnificent and benign, he fared across the world, a long procession following in his train.
“[…] And while he pondered the art of transforming the rough woodlanders into a race that should love music and submit to just laws, more than once over his brow, burning with the fire of enthusiasm, did melancholy and gloomy fever pass. But his profound knowledge and his friendship for mankind enabled him to triumph over every obstacle.”
I actually had to put the book down for a second. Not only was this a beautiful passage, but suddenly my understanding shifted.
The ideals laid out by religious groups like the Satanic Temple didn’t correspond to my previous idea of who Satan was. But they DID make sense in context with the Satan I was reading about here. And since Satan is (spoiler alert) not real, who is to say that one devil isn’t as good as any other?
You might call it a Damascus Road moment. Except in this case it’s Damascus, Oregon, about 15 miles outside of Portland, and the road was I-5, because I always lean West Coast over Middle East.
I read more: Blake, Baudelaire, Michelet, Byron, Sand, Tristan, Shelly, the other Shelley–people who used words like “Satan” and “devil” in radically different ways than I’d previously encountered, but ways that nevertheless made perfect sense.
There is of course little uniformity between all of these sources. These writers had their own ideas about who Satan was–but that was okay, because increasingly, so did I. And of course, the values I was extracting from these ideas I came to think of as “Satanism”–what could possibly be more organic?
My perspective on something else changed too: Looking back on old Anton LaVey’s Satanic Bible, I suddenly started wondering: Why was THAT called “Satanism?” Where was Satan in any of it?
LaVey rooted his religion in the philosophies of folks like Victorian Social Darwinist Herbert Spencer, and pseudonymous anti-Semitic asshole Ragnar Redbeard. What the devil did any of this have to do with the devil?
I know the party line, of course: Since he promoted ideas that he felt were un-Christian–materialism, carnality, ego gratification–he assumed this made his religion Satanic. But of course, most religions are un-Christian; all of them except one, in fact.
Meanwhile, Satan appeared almost nowhere in the foundations of this supposed Satanism. In a 1970 LA Times puff piece, LaVey said of his church, “Actually, it’s just Ayn Rand’s philosophy with ritual and ceremony added.” Why call a religion based on Ayn Rand the Church “of Satan?” I simply Didn’t Get It. I still don’t.
Even today, when LaVey baes argue for ultra-orthodox subscription to his writings, I notice they never make a case for its merits. They mostly just assert that the institution exists and that deference should be automatic.
Some friends of mine still value those books for personal reasons, which I think is great if it helps them. But to me, it all seems increasingly like the strangest of anachronisms.
I imagine that, like me, most people inherited an artificially narrow set of ideas about religion. And behavioral science teaches us that we tend to favor the first thing we learn about a topic, especially early in life.
By comparison, self-education is a lot of work. It’s work nobody pays you for, and that in all likelihood nobody else will ever even know that you did. (Unless you happen to write a blog about it six years later.)
Last year, when we finally published our long-delayed Satanic Sinema list, I made the point that what the entries were was less important than the arguments for them. To assert your beliefs can be a powerful thing, but to articulate WHY you believe it is almost always the stronger play.
That’s not to say that “why” is the only question that matters. But if you don’t answer it, you will probably matter less.