A SATANIST’S GUIDE TO LIFE BEFORE DEATH
Curiosity-seekers sometimes ask: As atheists, how do Modern Satanists cope with problems like mortality and death?
Which I find a slightly strange question. What gives you the idea we’d know how to cope? What makes you think ANYONE knows how to cope?
I get it though: Other religions are supposed to have all of the answers when it comes to death and dying. They have tropes like an afterlife to take the sting out of it.
Except not really, because as previously discussed, I’m not convinced most of them actually believe that. Certainly they don’t act like it–with the possible exception of suicide bombers, which, fine, I’ll cede them that point, but only that point.
Simply put, I don’t believe there are any answers. Neither do I believe there should be. Because dying is not a question.
I perceive that atheists are under a lot of pressure to die gracefully, as if admitting normal human existential dread would hurt our rhetorical position.
Which, I dunno, maybe it would, but I hardly see how that’s going to matter: “My mortality angst is really undermining my talking points in the comments on this Christopher Hitchens video, better tamp that down real quick.”
In 2009, late film critic and unlikely screenwriter of Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens (1979) Roger Ebert wrote, “I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. […] My lifetime’s memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris.”
That’s quite beautiful, of course. But I’m not having any of it: I’m very unhappy about this whole thing and I’d like to speak to a manager, even though I know there is no manager and that’s actually the crux of the issue.
I support the right of chronically ill people to end their own lives with dignity if they so choose, but I don’t anticipate ever being one of those people. Stick my brain in an olive jar, change the water twice a day, and keep me running with a car battery if that’s what you have to do goddamnit, but I’m milking every last second on this clock.
But, look, here’s the thing: I’m not supposed to be happy about this. Hydrogen isn’t happy that it fuses into helium–and it’s not not happy either. It’s just a process, one that happens to make continued life possible. My disgruntlement at mortality shows that A) I know my ass from a hole in a crypt, and B) the world as we know it continues to operate successfully.
Think of it in terms of flies: The name “Beelzebub” derives from “Ba’al Zəbûb,” apparently a Philistine deity in 2 Kings and translated via the Online Etymology Dictionary as essentially “lord of flies.”
Maybe Beelzebub was a plague god–who thus also had the power to heal disease–with contagion represented by flies. Or maybe Beelzebub’s priests used flies as a means of divination (“entomancy”), and thus the flies were deceptively important. Or maybe it’s just a derisive name for a foreign deity, the “flies” being the worshipers and the god being, well, shit.
But actually, I think flies are a perfectly appropriate avatar for a god–or a demon. Among other things, flies are voracious consumers: Science writer Mindy Weisberger writes, “Larvae of the black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens) […] can consume up to twice its body mass in a day,” often eating alongside hundreds of thousands of siblings.
(Don’t click that link if you have a sensitive temperament, by the by.)
There are lots of animals that appeal to our human prejudices in terms of religious iconography–your lions, your eagles, your lambs, your wolves. But sooner or later they all end up food for grubs, which of course mostly all serve as food for something else too.
Hamlet observed, “A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm. […] A king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar.” Sooner or later, everything just becomes fuel for the lord of the flies.
And this is necessary. Almost every single thing that has ever lived has done us the tremendous favor of dying, and thus providing the materials that make our lives possible. Their deaths also got them bodily out of the way, without which expiration we’d have no room for ourselves.
Future generations of things are relying on me to not be around when they are. If I had my way, I’d continue to exist forever–which is precisely why I don’t get my way. If everyone who had ever wanted to live forever had gotten to, I’d never have lived at all.
If you’re looking for something personally empowering in all of this, here’s one: We’re about a year into the most serious parts of a global pandemic–had you noticed? A lot of people have died, but I’m lucky that it was nobody I knew. And now most of the people important to me–my mother, my brother, my partner–are vaccinated, or will be soon.
So are many of our Bay Area Satanists. Some people’s religions compel them to not seek out this free, life-saving medicine that can, in effect, save the world as we know it, but we’ve all chosen not to be some of those people.
Life is short, and we can’t change that. But sometimes we get to decide that it doesn’t have to be any shorter.
It’s a small thing, but the stakes are after all life-and-death. So I’m actually very happy to get to make the decision.