After my recent article, I Don’t Care What You Think About My Satanism, I received this email from reader and listener Pyrrole Crimson:
Hi Stephen – I’m sticking with you. But, I’ll be honest, the enthusiasm for Satanism gives me pause. OK… creeps me out, actually. But, as is the case with each topic you explore, I am learning things I did not know. I did not know, for instance, that the Satanic Temple is non-theist. Nor did I know that the Church of Satan is a separate & different organization from TST. I had assumed that anyone who affiliates with any Satanic group is doing so to worship Evil & Chaos. No Thank You! But, you are informing me otherwise. Yet I wonder, why Satan, a word/entity that elicits fear & revulsion in many people, myself included? If TST doesn’t worship Satan, indeed, doesn’t even think he exists, why use that name?
This is an excellent question, and this is the sort of conversation I want to have. As we move deeper into an interconnected, multi-cultural world, conversations in which our divergent views collide is necessary. It is paramount that, even if our intuitions and convictions don’t change, we understand where our fellow human beings are coming from.
This is the question I get asked the most: why Satan? Wouldn’t it be easier, more effective, more expedient to use a label that doesn’t fill the public with revulsion? The answer is probably yes — it would be more effective. And that speaks to how this is not a ploy or strategy, but rather a deeply held religious identity.
What follows is a list of why Satan works for me. In articulating this, I don’t expect my readers/listeners to become Satanists. I don’t even expect them to like it. My hope, rather, is that we can continue to understand one another and work together towards justice.
An important caveat: I am not a spokesperson for The Satanic Temple, or any other Satanist. I speak only for myself.
Because satanism makes sense within a particular tradition.
Satanism is originally a literary tradition rooted in the romantic poets, namely Hugo, Shelly, Blake, and Byron. These four poets were not themselves religious Satanists, but they were the first to recast the biblical myth of Satan in a positive, metaphorical light. In the throes of enlightenment, romanticism, and revolution, they saw the Satan of Milton’s Paradise Lost as the far more sympathetic and heroic figure. As Ruben Van Luijk notes in his book Children of Lucifer, “For radical sympathizers with the Revolution like Godwin and Shelley, Satan was no longer an evil insurgent against righteousness and cosmic order, but the mirror image and mythological embodiment of the revolutionary standing up against arbitrary and despotic power.” (pg. 77)
Perhaps the first articulation of Romantic Satanism is found in these words from An Inquiry Into Political Justice written in 1793 by anarchist William Godwin, in which he reflects on Milton’s Satan:
It must be admitted that his energies are centred too much on personal regards. But why did he rebel against his maker? It was, as he himself informs us, because he saw no sufficient reason, for that extreme inequality of rank and power, which the creator assumed. It was because prescription and precedent form no adequate ground for implicit faith. After his fall, why did he still cherish the spirit of opposition? From a persuasion that he was hardly and injuriously treated. He was not discouraged by the apparent inequality of the contest: because a sense of reason and justice was stronger in his mind, than a sense of brute force; because he had much of the feelings of an Epictetus or a Cato, and little of those of a slave. He bore his torments with fortitude, because he disdained to be subdued by despotic power. He sought revenge, because he could not think with tameness of the unexpostulating authority that sought to dispose of him.
This literary/creative tradition of reframing Satan as a revolutionary hero has existed ever since through artists like Baudelaire, Anatole France, Blake, Byron, etc. Outside of this literary tradition Satanism is indeed confusing. Because I was already familiar with this rich literary stream, I was not confused or perturbed when I encountered The Satanic Temple.
If you do not first step into the imaginative stream and tradition of a religion, it will make little sense. Much the same could be said for Christians who worship Christ by symbolically or metaphysically eating his body and drinking his blood every week, or who wear symbols of brutal, ancient torture around their necks. There are those who insist, Jordan Peterson-like, that symbolism has an immutable metaphysical structure, and cannot shift with time or current. And yet those who make this claim are often, themselves, celebrating brutal torture and cannibalism as symbols of redemption and love.
It would be easy to insist that because torture and cannibalism are objectively wrong and evil, Christianity must be fundamentally grotesque, but I would be wrong to make that argument. All religious symbols are weird, and it is only when we step into the dynamic flow of tradition that these symbols are placed within their context, and come to light.
It is worth noting that the Satanism of Anton LaVey was a significant departure from Romantic Satanism. While the Romantics and later literary Satanists like Baudelaire and Anatole France understood Satan as the liberator of prisoners, defender of the downtrodden, and the champion of enlightenment, science, and reason, LaVey bypassed this romantic Satanism, and drew his Satanism from pop culture, Aleister Crowley, libertarian thinkers, and champions of Social Darwinism like Nietzsche and Ayn Rand. This meant that LaVeyan Satanism has, predominately, been a religion of the Right, embracing ruthless class hierarchy and the “master morality” of Nietzsche.
My personal Satanism rejects Social Darwinism and master morality, and I reclaim the Satan of the Romantics: the hero who defends the outcast and fights against tyranny.
Because Satan is the champion of the outsider.
We’ve explored how the literary Romantic tradition recasts Satan as a hero, but there is a deeper, lived aspect of this that strikes at the very core of my being.
Most people experience revulsion at the name of Satan. This revulsion is rooted in an ancient, deeply ingrained and unexamined story about who and what Satan is.
Similarly, there are people groups who have historically been deemed children of Satan. Think of the revulsion you feel at the name of Satan; think of the darkness, ickiness, vileness of the word. Now consider that through history, people have had the exact same gut response to Jews, people of color, disabled people, mentally ill people, LGBTQ people. These groups of peoples have had deeply rooted cultural stories about them — stories that cast them as villainous, disgusting, subhuman, rebellious. They have been branded, again and again through history, as children of Lucifer.
I’m gay, and it’s hard to describe what receiving this cultural story about homosexuality did to my psyche as I was growing up. I was told that homosexuality is the greatest and vilest perversion of the natural world, that I was demon possessed for loving men. I went through exorcisms. One Christian woman slapped my hand out of the air when I made a “disgusting” feminine gesture, which compromised my godly manhood. I was told that gay sex would open a portal to uninhibited and darkness within me. I was an abomination, just like Lucifer.
And here’s the most important part of it for me: that story about me as a gay man was wrong. The cultural myth, the deep-seated intuitions of the Christians around me were wrong. We often assume that our disgust –arguable one of the more powerful responses in human nature — correlates to truth. But it doesn’t. Our disgust often leads us astray.
Owning Lucifer as my figurehead is now a defiant act of empowerment: it is an ownership of my minority status, a proclamation that the myth of my demonization was misguided, and claiming solidarity with the demonized everywhere. Claiming Satan as the heroic good is a deeply validating act when I myself have been deemed a monster because of cultural myth. I embrace my own goodness by recasting my father Lucifer as good, too.
Because Satan is the least villainous within the Bible.
A careful reading of scripture reveals that the God of the Bible is kind of a jerk, and Satan actually quite sympathetic. The only time Satan seems to do something truly villainous is when he and God gang up against Job and make his life a living hell. Other than that, Satan is the far more sympathetic figure.
While I’m not a fan of Richard Dawkins, I think he accurately describes the God of the Old Testament in The God Delusion:
“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
Satan is far more pleasant. While he does kill Job’s family, he doesn’t commit acts of genocide the way God does. He tries to offer Adam and Eve greater knowledge of the world around them, and then is mercilessly punished for that (yes, I know, the snake in Eden is not technically Satan, but culturally they have become intertwined.) He tries to offer Jesus food and comfort in the desert, and tries to talk him out of being killed for the sake of a bloodthirsty God in an act of cosmic child sacrifice.
If you balk at this retelling, and resent God being recast as a villainous bully, consider that we have been interpreting and retelling scripture for 2000 years. It’s myth, and myth is a prism: when we turn it, we see the world in a new light. And here’s the important bit: no interpretation is more correct because all religion, as far as I am concerned, is human invention and fair game for reinterpretation.
Because it is easier to build a religion from the remains of what came before.
God is dead, that much is clear. The hold that institutional religion has over the world is weakening, and while many experience this as an enormous step forward in enlightenment and liberation, we would be remiss to say this does not create difficulties for some. Some of us yearn for symbol, structure, and ritual. Some of us yearn for a scaffold of symbolic structure which can contextualize our lives. Religion offered us all of that, and now we are a generation flailing, lonely, and doing the hard work of constructing meaning on our own terms.
Instead of letting go of religion altogether, I argue for a mindful, skeptical, enlightened religion: an embrace of religious practice with the freedom to reject supernaturalism or unverified claims. We can have all the best the enlightenment can give us, and all the best of religion.
This is, in effect, a post Christian project: a place that is not opposed to Christianity, but is a derivative of it. Post Christianity is a place that is not itself Christianity, but accessible only by way of Christianity.
For those of us who grew up in the Christian world, it is easier and more expedient to pick up the pieces of our former fallen religion. We still speak the language, dream in the symbols, and have a deep connection to the liturgies. It is easier (for some of us) to construct a new symbolic structure out of what came before. In this way, I don’t really see my Satanism as opposed to Christianity. I rather see it as a reconstruction, a deliberate and post-Christian concoction. I like to think of Satanism’s emergence from Christianity as similar to that of Buddhism from Hinduism. It rejects many tenets of the old religion while still embracing many of the same symbols and structures.
This is why I think Satanism is having a moment. For a few of us “nones” who have abandoned our Christian upbringing but still yearn for religious community, Satanism makes instant sense. It reconstructs the old and familiar into something radically new and exciting. It aligns our nomad, skeptical, questing values with a religious scaffold of community, symbol, and ritual. That is a powerful thing.
But that’s just me. What do you think? Share your thoughts below, and I’d love to hear back from you.
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