Satanism as a Counter-Myth: a Correspondence With Priest Penemue

Several weeks ago, a fellow named Elijah left a comment on my post Why Satan? The comment addresses concerns about Satanism which I think many people share. I was planning to write a full response, but I find that I just don’t have enough energy for that right now. I ended up corresponding with Satanic Temple Director of Ministry Priest Penemue on the subject. We had a lively discussion. Instead of writing a full response to the article, I will simply post the comment (it’s tedious, I’m sorry) followed by my correspondence with Penemue.

Elijah’s comment:

Most of the world’s people are still shackled by the ancient superstitions of religion. Some people have thrown off those shackles but still like to drape themselves in the vestiges of religion. In my view, these people generally fall into two camps. Some of them simply use religion as a palette from which to add color to their life. Others use religion as a crutch to prop up their sense of spirituality, of deeper meaning. I believe that Mr. Long falls into this category.

If one needs a crutch then it’s better to use one than to hobble around without one. However, ideally one would eventually be healed enough that they could stand on their own two feet and leave the crutch behind. If one doesn’t actually need a crutch, then using one is a detriment. Doing so would hold a person back, keep them from reaching their potential. If used for too long it can cause damage to the body because the body trains itself to rely upon the crutch. 

Mr. Long’s take on Satanism is basically that it’s an invented mythology which suits him. He talks about it being easier to pick up the pieces of an old religion than to start a new one from scratch. If all that one wants is an invented mythology, might I suggest Tolkien’s Middle Earth? It has a god, a creation story, “angels” and “demons”, good and evil, an afterlife. I think that a Church of Iluvatar would look really cool, and it avoids the unnecessary baggage of a failed religion.

I find it peculiar how Mr. Long glosses over Satan’s torment of Job. “Sure, Satan killed Job’s family and household staff, but otherwise he’s an okay guy”. What? Mr. Long also brought up Satan’s temptation of Christ, saying that Satan was just offering him food. I think it’s important to note the last part of that story. Satan shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and offers them to him, saying that he gives their power and glory to whoever he wants. So in the Biblical narrative all the leaders of the world’s nations are chosen by Satan, which means that Satan is responsible for promoting all the wars and genocides that have occurred throughout human history. So no, according to the ancient texts, Satan is not a nice guy.

So, why not Satan? Well, if an invented mythology helps you out and you’re using it to express love and not hatred, then okay, you do you. Personally I’m open-minded, that quality allowed me to break free of my fundamentalist upbringing and evolve from an Ayn Rand-Objectivist to a libertarian-leaning Democrat. Open-mindedness works both ways, I still consider the possibility that Christianity was right all along. I’m reminded of the part that talks about Satan and his servants appearing as ministers of light. So if the Bible is real, this whole “Satan as a good guy” thing is exactly the kind of the thing that the real devil would do. I don’t think this is the case, but there’s enough doubt in my open-minded head that I don’t really feel comfortable hanging out with a Satanist.

On the more practical side, Mr. Long said that he wants to “work together towards justice”. I’m all up for that goal, but unfortunately the name of Satan taints everything it touches. I’m in favor of state’s rights, and so are Confederate flag-wavers. In the same way that I wouldn’t want to work with Confederates, I also wouldn’t want to work with Satanists. Mr. Long acknowledged this difficulty, and if his faith means so much to him he has to follow his heart; but I have to ask “is holding on to an invented mythology worth damaging one’s ability to enact real political change that can help fix society’s problems?”

Penemue:

Oh goodness. There’s a lot in there but I feel like going point-by-point would not only be very boring, but would also be to miss what I think is the central disconnect going on. Mssr. Shoults simultaneously acknowledges and dismisses the psychological and cultural importance of narratives, iconography, and myth-making (even invoking the “you do you” trope, which is a brilliant way for any speaker to signal open-mindedness while also otherizing and distancing the person or perspective under discussion). This is something I see a lot of from areligious atheists, and seems to stem from the mistaken idea that if something is socially or culturally constructed then it is arbitrary. It is not. Satanism is a cultural counter-myth. What Mssr. Shoults describes as “baggage” is an incredibly powerful network of symbols and associations that exist in our culture whether we acknowledge them or not, and there is both psychological and cultural power in deliberately redirecting those existing power-lines than starting from scratch. Like a feminist re-writing of a Princess Fairy Tale, Satanism is deliberately mischievous in the way it preserves some aspects of old existing storylines and changes others. This invites both Satanists, as participants, and outside observers to deconstruct their understanding of exactly how much theology permeates our day-to-day lives…. much more effectively, I might add, than the simple act of being an areligious atheist.

I’m fascinated by the line: “I don’t think this is the case, but there’s enough doubt in my open-minded head that I don’t really feel comfortable hanging out with a Satanist.” Lingering supernaturalism can be tough for an atheist to admit, so I applaud you for that, Mssr. Shoults. And it’s striking to me that you might not have come to that admission, had Mr. Long’s religion been centered around Tolkien’s Middle Earth, as you recommended. Maybe that is an important difference, as well.

Stephen:

I completely agree. What annoyed me most was his crutch metaphor — the notion that religion is, by its nature, unhealthy and not ideal. I see no evidence that this is the case — if the religion is healthy, nontheistic, self-aware, and compassionate, then what’s the problem? How is that a crutch? I’ve basically just resorted to telling people that I value religious identity for whatever reason, and that I’m less happy without it. I’ve come to peace with my desire for religious practice, weakness or not. You’ve spent more time as an atheist than I have — where do you think this discomfort in some atheists come from? I’m very comfortable with people having no religious identity, but they seem very uncomfortable with my Satanism. That sentence you pointed out fascinated me too.

Penemue:

Most of the atheists I’ve engaged with who have reservations or feelings of doubt around Satanism mostly are uncomfortable with the notion of “atheistic religion” or more specifically “non-supernaturalist religion” broadly. I think it’s telling that Mssr. Shoults specifically talks about his discomfort with Satan and Satanism…. which seems weird for an atheist. But whatever. (LOL)

More commonly I just hear this kind of argument: The term “religion” has historically been associated with supernaturalism. Even if it COULD be re-cast in a different light, why do the work? It will always be tainted. What is so important about the word “religion” specifically, anyway? (and so on and so on) That’s where I always end up when I’m discussing this with my best friend, Josiah. (You’ve probably seen videos I’ve done with him from back when I was doing my youtube channel — Josiah Jennings.) He’s very skeptical, and it always comes back to “if it’s not supernaturalist, why call it religion?” and “if you open the door to that being a religion, is the Democratic Party a religion?” and so on. I think this tendency might be especially strong for atheists who grew up in very religious households — for them the term “religion” has all kinds of personal negative associations. Then, when they found atheism, they found a lot of comfort in critiquing “religion” per se…. and now they don’t want to have to reverse themselves on that. (note: I’m not saying this is a conscious or rational thought, but rather emotionally it creates dissonance because they’ve attached some level of identity to their dissociation from religion-per-se.)

Stephen

I think that’s true — I think a close study of religion shows that it is an incredibly ambiguous term. I find it interesting how many supernaturalists do not adhere to a religion (modern day “nones” who still pray, believe in ghosts, or pray to God) and there are many formal religions that either do not believe in God or do not demand it in their followers (secular Jews, some Buddhists, Unitarian Universalists, some Quakers, on and on and on.) So when I hear an atheist try to insist that religion necessitates supernaturalism, I can’t help but feel that they don’t have a very strong grasp on religious traditions in general. It feels like like an emotional, unconscious blind spot.


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