Satanism and Ignorant Familiarity

I’m currently working my way through Joseph Laycock’s new book Speak of the Devil. It is one of the best books I’ve ever read on Satanism, and I recommend it to anyone wanting to learn more about the Satanic religious movement and The Satanic Temple. Joseph Laycock is a scholar of new religious movements, and (full disclosure) he is the most-interviewed guest on my podcast Sacred Tension.

He manages to speak with scholarly authority on issues that I, as a practicing Satanist, have been struggling to articulate and explore. I found one passage on page 24 particularly helpful in understanding my interactions with non-Satanists:

Another challenge faced by TST is “ignorant familiarity.” New religious scholar David Feltmate defines “ignorant familiarity” as “widespread superficial — and often erroneous — knowledge about groups of people that other groups use to facilitate social interaction.”

I find this particularly helpful in understanding many of the interactions I’ve had. People who have next to no understanding of Satanism — who have, in fact, just recently learned about it — are almost always happy to regale me (the actual Satanist) with their authoritative knowledge on the subject. They tell me that it’s all about toxic individualism — an interpretation which they extrapolate from LaVey (rarely have they actually read LaVey) and then apply to TST, failing to understand that there are different kinds of Satanism, some of which reject LaVey’s teachings. They tell me that I’m not a real Satanist because I’m not edgy enough, or because I don’t sacrifice children. They insist that TST is a troll, and is just using religious identity as a front for political activism. We’re not. That’s like accusing Quakers of using their religious identity as a front for protest. I am a deeply religious person, my religion is Satanism, and TST is my church.

Most frustrating of all, some people act with anger when I try to politely correct them. Some people get huffy and tongue-tied when I tell them that, no, TST is not a troll, and I joined because I had an authentic conversion to religious Satanism. They go mute or get flustered when I try to explain the differences between TST’s philosophy as exemplified in the Seven Tenets, and LaVey’s philosophy.

In regards to Satanism, Laycock has an interesting take on why people might respond this way,

My suspicion is that this dismissive attitude goes beyond mere intellectual laziness and actually functions as a defense mechanism: it is a facile way of ducking the challenges that TST poses and preserving the two-tier model of religion described by Murphy in which we do not have to think about Satanists. Paradoxically, I think we dismiss TST because of, and not in spite of, the fact that they have something important to say.

(The two-tier model of religion is the concept that we think of religion as “top tier world religions” — Christianity, Hinduism, etc. — while neglecting weirder, newer, and smaller religions that might make us less comfortable. It’s an interesting idea, and might deserve its own blog post.)

I agree with Laycock. One of the reasons I keep writing about Satanism, instead of just quietly practicing it, is because I think the modern Satanic movement has compelling, uncomfortable things to say not just about religious freedom and Christian privilege in the United States, but also about the nature of religion, enchantment, atheism, ritual, perceptions of good and evil, and meaning-making. I see Satanism as an authentic religious movement that also happens to challenge deeply held notions in American theistic religions and atheist communities.


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