On Satanism and Atheism

I recently wrote an article titled On Forfeiting the Word Atheist in which I explored how using the word “atheist” predisposes people to having the least charitable view of me. I’ve gotten so exasperated explaining again and again what the word “atheist” means that I’ve opted for the word “nontheist,” just because it has a different connotation and isn’t as poisoned by anti-atheist propaganda.

To be clear, I like the word atheist, and I see it as identical to the word nontheist. I don’t care if other people use the word atheist, I just find the word a stumbling block when I try to have productive conversations with theists. I have limited patience, and I personally find it more expedient to not use the word.

Along these lines, a reader sent me this question:

“Why then would you self-identify as a satanist when it seems (from your writings at least) that THAT label is also widely misunderstood?”

Continue reading “On Satanism and Atheism”

The Satanic Conversion

I’ve spent a great deal of time explaining why Satanism works for me, and you can find that trove of information here. But, as I continue to explore my Satanism and receive questions from bemused readers, I’m starting to realize that there is an essential component of my Satanism that I’ve left out. So essential, perhaps, that it feels impossible to articulate. I feel intimidated trying to put this to words, but I will do my best in this post.

Reader and Patron David got to the heart of this essential element of my Satanism when he asked the following question:

However, if I may, why not something more conventional like Buddhism? I always thought it would be nice to reach the ultimate state of nirvana. You really don’t have to believe in anything supernatural with that. Of course no one can tell you what you should do. It’s only that there might be a tendency for people to be put off by the notion of Satan, because they might think you actually are worshipping evil or whatever.

I can’t help but feel that my readers are going about this far more rationally than I am. People looking in on my Satanism assume that, because I’m a nontheist, I surveyed the vast array of religious options and deliberately and calmly chose the most inflammatory, offensive, and misunderstood path possible. Nothing could be further from the truth.

If I were going about this rationally, I would be a boring Unitarian Universalist, or a milquetoast Episcopalian. If I wanted to be the most palatable, approachable person I could manage, I’d be a Buddhist. Because I’m a nontheist, people assume that I don’t have any trace of intuition, mysticism, or religious passion. It makes sense, then, that they would wonder why I chose the most obviously controversial religion in the Western Hemisphere.

But something deeper than “choice” happened here. Something deeply inconvenient and confusing happened. I can only call it a Satanic conversion.

Against my better judgement I fell headfirst in love with the symbol of the Romantic Satan. When I first encountered The Satanic Temple in 2017 something inside me sang. This was deeper than choice or strategy, but was intuition, passion, and romance. G.K. Chesterton wrote, “let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.” My Satanism is all love affair.

The only other thing I can compare it to is my love of Christ when I was a Christian. Christ felt like a living being, and the object of my most earnest adoration and affection. Christ permeated my life. I couldn’t help it. Now, even though I’m a nontheist who does not believe in the supernatural, God, or an afterlife, I feel a similar passion. In the same way I fell in love with Christ, I have fallen in love with Satan. Not by cold, calculated choice, not out of a sense of what’s most politically expedient, not out of a desire to troll conservative Christians, and not because it makes my life easier.

My Satanism does make my life more difficult. Why lose friends, and be an object of fear or confusion? Why would I endanger my work and livelihood? Why would I jeopardize my relationship with my family? It’s irrational, you might say, and I agree. It is deeply inconvenient, and deeply irrational. In fact, when I first joined The Satanic Temple, I resolved to keep it a secret and to live and practice quietly as a Satanist, because I knew there would be repercussions.

But, as I started my journey as a Satanist, my passion for the symbol of Satan grew and grew. It flourished; it filled my soul. I found myself possessed of what I can only call, uncomfortably, a religious fervor, an overwhelming love.

I reached out to some prominent Satanists on twitter to get their comments on this experience. Satanic Temple International Council member Chalice Blythe had this to say:

Calling it a “love affair” hits really close to my own view of it and I agree that, though based in rationalism, being a Satanist didn’t come about from a hard, cold place. It’s an almost instantaneous, deeply connected passion that you just “know”. It’s coming home. And like most intense loves, the more you learn the deeper it solidifies within you.

When I expressed that the more it solidifies the more impossible it feels to communicate this love to those outside it, Satanic Temple founder Lucien Greaves agreed:

That’s exactly the problem I have. I can try to articulate it, but there’s no way I can make people feel it if it doesn’t really speak to them.

This is why I insist on calling my Satanism a religion. Religion touches our whole being — it envelopes us in a way nothing else can. My Satanism connects with me on a deep, irrational, intuitive level, while also engaging my mind and reason. It is a full body, mind-and-heart experience. It is also a shared communion, existing not just individually but in the space between other practitioners of this path. While it might make the more rational among us uncomfortable, I don’t know how to describe this journey as anything other than a path of physicalist mysticism which started with a Satanic conversion. In essence a living, religious fictionalism.

This might leave you with questions: how is it possible to feel such love and fervor for a mythic being who has no objective reality? How is it possible to be religious and nontheistic? How is it possible to be a physicalist and a mystic? (I’m open to using terms other than “mystic”, but it was the word that came most readily to me while I was writing this piece.) Satanism requires a profound paradigm shift into a different space: a place of wonderment and rationalism, religion and atheism. It breaks down these false binaries, ultimately with the goal of living a more fulfilled and joyful life.


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Does Atheism Lack Wonder?

In The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, Eastern Orthodox Theologian David Bentley Hart writes that he believes true atheism must be “nurtured by an infantile wish to live in a world proportionate to one’s own hopes or conceptual limitations.”

I’ve already written a post about DBH, and I won’t belabor the points I made in that post. Rather, I want to explore the above assumption. Now that I’m a nontheist, it’s an assumption I see everywhere, where it was previously invisible to me.

The assumption goes like this: if you had an adequate understanding of the vastness and mystery of the cosmos, the hard problem of consciousness, or the sheer inability of physical stuff to explain why physical stuff itself exists at all, then you would understand that God is the only logical explanation. Because you don’t believe in God, that must mean you don’t have a truly expansive sense of wonder in the face of reality.

It’s also an assumption I myself held about atheism, nontheism, and naturalism. Perhaps it was the strident assholery of Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens, etc. which led me to assume (naively) that all naturalists and atheists lack a fundamental curiosity about the universe. But now that I am myself a nontheist, I understand how misguided an assumption this is.

It’s hard to describe why this assumption is wrong until one crosses that formidable chasm between theism and nontheism. The mystery of the universe is, in fact, bigger and more astounding to me because I can’t easily rely on God as an explanation for existence.

Sure, I can use God in a “Ground of Being”, or “First Cause,” sort of way, but that for me is just a semantic trick, and has little relation to the material claims of world religions, and could be interchangeable with many other terms, like Ultimate Reality, or Brahman, or simply “Reality.” I’m not opposed to these uses of the word “God,” and in fact I quite like them. But they still, ultimately, leave me far outside theistic religions which make claims that I can’t sign off on until they have been verified, such as virgin births, resurrections, and what not. So all this leads me back, in a huge circle, to wonder — and not knowing much of anything about ultimate reality.

I generally agree with Hart’s criticisms of naturalism — that it can’t explain consciousness, qualia, or being. I agree that when we remove God from our worldview, these fundamental aspects of the cosmos (what could be more fundamental to human experience than consciousness?) are left inexplicably, magically mysterious. The annoying assumption then becomes: “well, you must not take seriously the real depth of these problems, and that is made evident because you don’t believe in God in the same way I do.”

But we do take these problems seriously. In fact, it is atheistic scientists and philosophers themselves who call it “The Hard Problem of Consciousness,” presumably for a reason. We don’t know what consciousness is, or how it exists at all, and we may never know. That leaves us with a mystery so deep, so profound, that it literally keeps me up at night.

As Kathryn Schulz explains in this TED talk, we make a series of unfortunate assumptions about those who disagree with us:

The first assumption is that someone is just misinformed. If they see the same data that we have, then they would obviously find that we were right all along. But when that proves not to be the case, then we just assume they are stupid: they have all the data, they just aren’t smart enough to properly put it all together. But that often proves untrue as well, which leads us to a darker conclusion: if our interlocutor has the same data we have, and is not stupid, that must mean that they are evil, or (in my own interpretation) have a fatal character flaw.

The assumption that nontheists lack wonder, as articulated by David Bentley Hart above, strikes me as a variation of the final argument. We see the same universe, many atheists are clearly very smart, and as a result we must be inclined towards a world proportionate to our own humdrum view of things.

But what could be a more honest assessment of mystery than saying, “I don’t know — this all kind of blows my mind?” And that’s exactly what many atheists and nontheists say. We are just unable, for whatever reason, to make the leap from mystery to God the way theists do. That doesn’t make us evil or unimaginative, and that doesn’t make theists stupid. Instead, I’m convinced that it is generally our integrity that informs our belief or unbelief.

Could I be wrong about the universe? Do I find myself doubting everything I think I know? Of course I do. So do many nontheists I know, as well as many Christians. For threat of tooting my own horn, I think such self-doubt is a sign of integrity. And it leaves me in this place of crushing humility: my methodological materialist vision of reality could be all wrong, and I acknowledge that there are some serious problems with it. But, it’s the model I’m working with right now, until a better model of reality comes along for me.

The excellent Goodreads reviewer Nostalgebraist expresses this beautifully in their review of Hart’s book:

I doubt you will find many atheists who are unmoved by the deep mysteries Hart discusses. Hart and his opponents agree that these mysteries are deep, and that they are very difficult, perhaps even impossible to solve within the framework of naturalism. Indeed, this is repeatedly emphasized in the very naturalist writing on these problems which Hart brings in for criticism. (I was shocked that he didn’t mention Chalmers’ “water into wine” turn of phrase, and I’m not sure he even brought up the phrase “Hard Problem of consciousness.”) There is a very basic confusion running through the book: Hart believes that these problems are obviously unsolvable in a naturalist framework, and so he assumes that the naturalists working on them must not realize the full severity of the problems. I think they do, and that is precisely why there is so much interest in working on them, and so much excitement over proposed solutions. If you were a young philosopher, which would you want to work on: the plodding completion of some little piece of the dominant system, or on some problem that seems impossible within that system? (Either you prove the potentially-impossible can be done after all, and thereby win eternal glory, or you prove it really is impossible, and overthrow the current order entirely — either is exciting!)

All this said, let’s make a deal, dear theists, Christians, and believers. I won’t assume, as some unpleasant atheists do, that you are stupid, naive, mentally ill, or evil for believing in a God and the supernatural. In fact, I will assume that it is your integrity which leads you to your conclusions. And I will ask that you give me the same courtesy. do not assume what the universe looks like to me, because I’m willing to bet that you have no way of knowing. Don’t assume I want to protect myself, like a fragile old man, from the hostilities of a preposterous universe, and that I am simply too comfortable in my materialist world to ever go outdoors and look at the sky and wonder at it all. I do just that, on a daily basis.


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House of Heretics

This week, instead of my regular Sacred Tension podcast, I’m releasing my Patrons-only podcast House of Heretics. It’s blasphemous, unedited, and a lot of fun. Justin and I drink coffee and discuss pop culture, religion, science, and whatever else strikes our fancy.

If you like what you hear, please consider becoming a patron by going to Patreon. Finances are tight, even though I’m working full time, and I need your help to make sure my work has a long life.

You can listen to this episode on iTunes, Podbean, your favorite podcast app, or on the player below.

I Won’t Leave the Church Because I’m a Satanist

Note: If you have been following my work for any amount of time, you know that I do, in fact, consider myself a Satanist. I’ve written a great deal on the subject, and you can read that wealth of information by following the Satanism category. If this is the first time you are encountering my work, I suggest exploring that category so you will (hopefully) be less confused.

Despite my self identification of Satanist, I don’t leave the church. Many of my dearest friends are devout Christians, I still interview Christians, I still review Christian books, and I still work at a church (which shall remain nameless, so they don’t get hate mail about me.) Why?

Continue reading “I Won’t Leave the Church Because I’m a Satanist”