Ever since I’ve discovered and enthusiastically thrown myself into the Satanic fold, a fascinating contention has emerged in conversation with my non-infernal brethren: is Satanism a “real” religion? Is it satire? Is it trolling? Is it a lifestyle instead of a religion? A few people (usually religious) have gotten quite angry with me when I insist that Satanism is, in fact, an authentic religion. I though I would address this question once and for all in this post.
What is Religion?
But first, we need to understand what religion even is. This is harder a task than it sounds, but Ruben Van Luijk offers a definition I rather like in his magisterial tome Children of Lucifer: The Origins of Modern Satanism:
I adopt the concise formula of Robert Bellah, who defined religion as “a set of symbolic forms and acts which relate man to the ultimate conditions of his existence.” I tacitly assume, by the way, that Bellah really meant to write “a set of symbolic forms and acts which relate man to what he perceives to be the ultimate conditions of his existence.”
Another helpful definition of religion is offered by theologian David Dark in his excellent book Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious, in which he suggests that religion is a binding story that contextualizes our lives. That might be too broad a definition for some, but it helps to pivot the definition of religion away from unhelpful supernaturalism or mere superstition.
These are my personal definitions of religion, and they are the definitions from which I make my case. If you contest them, that would be an interesting conversation, but not the focus of this article.
What is Satanism?
I define Satanism very simply as a veneration of the symbol of Satan. From this basic definition, a multitude of practices and theologies emerge. Two primary branches exist: theistic and nontheistic. Theistic Satanism is a fascinating subject, but is also probably a minority view within the Satanic world and is not the focus of this post. Nontheistic Satanism is my own brand of Satanism, and is the form of Satanism espoused by the most popular Satanic organizations (Church of Satan and The Satanic Temple.)
With these basic definitions out of the way, let’s move on to the most common objections I hear about Satanism being a religion.
But you don’t believe in the supernatural
There are plenty of other religious people that don’t accept the supernatural either. There are atheist Unitarian Universalists, nontheistic quakers, and certain schools of Buddhism which reject the notion of God or the supernatural altogether. When we look closely at religion, I think we discover that it exists on a vast spectrum between symbol and literalism, supernaturalism and materialism.
As the FAQ page for TST puts it:
The idea that religion belongs to supernaturalists is ignorant, backward, and offensive. The metaphorical Satanic construct is no more arbitrary to us than are the deeply held beliefs that we actively advocate. Are we supposed to believe that those who pledge submission to an ethereal supernatural deity hold to their values more deeply than we? Are we supposed to concede that only the superstitious are rightful recipients of religious exemption and privilege? Satanism provides all that a religion should without a compulsory attachment to untenable items of faith-based belief. It provides a narrative structure by which we contextualize our lives and works. It also provides a body of symbolism and religious practice — a sense of identity, culture, community, and shared values.
But aren’t you really just secular humanists pretending to be Satanists?
No. When we consider that Satanism includes a vast spectrum of belief, from Ayn Randian selfishness, Nietzschian nihilism to progressive humanism and outright gnostic theism, all rooted in an reverence for the figure of Satan, we understand that the symbol of Satan is non-arbitrary for Satanists and not just an edgy cover for progressive politics.
If you are a progressive Christian who sees Christ as your primary guiding myth, or an atheist Buddhist who sees the Buddha as your ultimate pinnacle of enlightenment, how is that any different from us seeing Satan as our greatest hero of enlightenment, courage, and heresy? Let’s make a deal: I won’t call you a social justice activist pretending to be a Christian, or a meditation enthusiast pretending to be Buddhist, and you don’t call me a secular humanist pretending to be a Satanist.
But your religion is satire
People often compare Satanism to the church of the flying spaghetti monster: a satirical religion designed solely for the purpose of pointing out the absurdities of theistic religion. I get where the comparison comes from, but I think it misses the mark.
Returning to Van Luijk’s definition of religion, Satanism relates Satanists to what they believe to be the ultimate conditions of their existence. When satire does emerge, it is peripheral: pointing out the absurdity of supernaturalist religion does not displace the unironic, unsatirical, and completely earnest veneration for Satan, which we believe contextualizes our lives and relates us to our ultimate goals and values.
But your religion is too young
Many of the criticisms I hear from people come from members of old and venerable religions, as if they are offended at the presence of young upstarts like Satanism. I often hear an unverbalized concern: how can such a young religion be legitimate?
When we examine this more deeply, we see how preposterous it is: Wicca, a widespread and recognized religion, was founded by Gerald Gardner in the early 20th century. So too with Scientology, Thelema, Raelism, Chaos Magick, and a myriad other religions
I personally believe that human society generates religions the way untended food sprouts mold. Religion will always be with us, because we are Homosapiens, eternally telling myths to each other around campfires in the great cosmic night. Rather than reject the notion of religion altogether, I find it healthier and more reasonable to embrace religion and encourage it to evolve; to send the message loud and clear that you can be fully rational without giving up your beloved set of symbols, rituals, and communities. For too long we’ve assumed that religion means abuse, darkness, and superstition. The only way forward, in my view, is to let religion evolve into nontheism, into enlightened religious practice. One reason I joined Satanism was because I think they are paving the way for enlightened, healthy religion.
Please share your thoughts in the comments below. I’d love to hear back from you.
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