ON HOLY/UNHOLY SATANISM: THE RELIGION IN WHICH YOU NEED ONLY BE HUMAN
In the days of the old Temple of Jerusalem (either of them, according to Britannica), the most sacred place was the Qodesh Ha-qadashim–“The Holy of Holies.”
Only the high priest was allowed to enter, and only on one day a year, to perform the most sacred rites. Legend has it in the time of Solomon, the Holy of Holies held the Ark of the Covenant itself, the most effective Nazi exterminator since this guy.
Meanwhile, in the 1994 movie Pulp Fiction, Samuel L Jackson used the phrase “holiest of holies” to refer to Uma Thurman’s genitalia.
So it is fair to say that words like “holy,” “sacred,” “divine,” and “sacrosanct” are quite flexible. That being the case, when we come to ask what is holy–or not holy–to a Modern Satanist, it may be that some people don’t really understand what they’re asking.
But I’m feeling spicy, so let’s try it anyway.
This came up a few days ago, during a virtual Satanic Temple religious service posing the question of whether it’s more desirable to reform and reclaim words like “holy” or to embrace the potency of stigmatized terms like “unholy.”
Having no strong feelings about these words outside of the context of Magic: The Gathering core sets, I did not initially feel particularly invested in the topic. Until someone broke out the etymology, which as always is a sure way to get my blood pumping.
“Holy,” they told us, derives from a word that means “whole,” in what’s presumably the lazy wordplay equivalent of finding a winning lottery ticket stuck to your shoe.
And it’s true: New World Encyclopedia traces “holy” back to the Old English “hālig,” which means “wholeness.” Etymology Online gives a slightly more complicated gloss that includes phrases like “uninjured” and “that which must be preserved intact,” which yes, makes that Tarantino joke all the more uncomfortable, but let’s not dwell on it.
This changed everything: Previously, I was mostly apathetic toward holiness. Now in the space of a definition, I was against it.
To be clear, if other Satanists want to claim or reclaim terms like “holy” or “minister” or “mater tua tam obesa est ut cum Romae est urbs habet octo colles” (give that last one a little more time), I think that’s fine.
In fact, almost anything that helps other Satanists feel more authentic, empowered, validated, or just happy is great. Unless they’re pricks, in which case the most authentic thing would be for them to walk into the sea and never look back.
But for my part, I don’t feel the need to celebrate or idealize “wholeness.” If anything, I think the essence of Satanism is to affirm that those of us who are incomplete, imperfect, undeveloped, broken, or, as the case turns out to be, unholy, have our own worth.
I admit I have not been entirely consistent on this: Two years ago, for example, I praised Anatole France’s The Revolt of the Angels for presenting Satan as a character who, through his vulnerability, “becomes a more complete version of himself.”
So to become more whole is not necessarily a bad thing. So what’s wrong with the idea of completion? Well, not much…except that it’s so impossible as to be anti-humanistic.
The notion of holy completeness ties into the rigid, toxic, and disenfranchising values of apocalyptic religions, which artificially pose godheads as perfect and humans as deficient. Orthodox ideas about holiness mean that people will never be anything but less-than.
The fear of this deficiency manifests as the rhetoric of “sin” and drives the engines that produce self-loathing, persecution, ignorance, and Pureflix films.
The Psalmist insists, “As for god, his way is perfect,” but this is not an ideal concept; I perceive religions built around ideas like perfection to be forms of abuse.
By contrast, Satan is unavoidably imperfect, flawed, broken–at times even very messy. In art and visual media he may also appear as physically disabled, with a single lame leg ending in a bestial foot, or wings that are scorched, broken, or amputated entirely.
This came up most recently in a yet-to-be-released Black Mass Appeal episode (check it out Tuesday) that features some discussion of disability. Many people’s bodies and minds will never be whole, and never achieve the standards of holy completeness; many don’t even want for them to be.
“Pentecostal and evangelical positivism set up disability as a consequence of original sin, and salvation includes its elimination,” Australian theologian Shane Clifton wrote in 2020. “This proves to be an impossible task, so the experience of being saved ends up as a cycle of failure, guilt, repentance, and [more] failure, masked by pretended religious piety.”
Even the word “queer”–this is Pride month, naturally–can mean things like despoiled, ruined, suspect, “hopelessly disadvantageous,” etc.
(Don’t let your fundamentalist relatives read the dictionary or you’ll never hear the end of it…)
Now again, I recognize that people who want to pursue ideas like Satanic holiness or completeness are presumably not reading them this way. Indeed, in many cases they probably have in mind something quite similar to what I’m preaching here, simply couched in different terms.
And I’m very happy if that works for them: Diversity of perspective is–with a handful of sea-plumbing exceptions–usually a good thing.
But I prefer to remain unholy. I want to know and say that imperfection is normal; that there is nothing divine, or if there is that it’s not better than you are; that I will remain not whole until such a time it’s both possible and useful to change that–which probably will be never, and that’s fine.
And I would like for people to see in Satan the truth that for the Iikes of us, life goes on. Questing after the fraudulent myth of perfection is a journey that never ends; personal affirmation is a destination right now.