What is Satanism? And where does social justice lie in this controversial religion?

What do Satanists believe? This is a timely question, given that accusations of Satanism and reports of Satanic activity have become worrisome in recent years, especially in the United States.

We all know the feverish imaginations of QAnon adherents and their belief in the existence of a global network of satanist pedophiles.

But even among seemingly rational people on the American political right, Satan’s name is being dropped with increasing frequency, and undesirable cultural phenomena are regularly denounced as “satanic.”

Are Satanists Really Out There? And do they pose some sort of demonic threat to a decent society?

The short answers are (1) yes and (2) no – and beyond the scary stories lie fascinating complexities.

From a sketchy figure to a symbol of freedom

It should be noted that while the image of Satan in Christian folklore and popular culture is elaborate and detailed, Satan in the Bible is a sketchy, minor, and surprisingly harmless figure.

Satan appears for the first time in the book of Job (his Hebrew name Satan means “adversary” or “adversary”), where he and God appear on perfectly friendly terms, and even engage in a friendly wager.

In the New Testament gospels, Satan subjects Jesus to various temptations, but he is easily foiled by the Son of God. In the book of James, it is suggested that even the ordinary Christian might find Satan child’s play: “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”

So far, so unthreatening. But what do Satanists get out of all this?

The first and most important thing to understand is that, on the whole, Satanists are not devil worshippers. They do not believe in the existence of Satan as a supernatural entity.

Satan in modern Satanism functions more as a symbol of certain things that Satanists worship: freedom, knowledge, fearlessness, power, pleasure. But there is no figure of God, and no worship.

Peter H Gilmore, current High Priest of the International Church of Satan, puts it very simply: “There is no creed or spirituality in Satanism. We are carnal, we are skeptics, we are proudly unfaithful people.

So why make it a religion? Why have a Church of Satan?

“Satanism understands that we are creatures of conceptual consciousness,” says Gilmore, “and our concepts are put together in such a way as to form symbols.”

This activity includes the creation of symbolic institutions such as churches.

“It’s a very powerful thing, and it leads to ritual as a form of human behavior. We use symbols and rituals to implement self-transformation and catharsis – hence the church and the religion.”

Anton LaVey is the controversial founder of the Church of Satan.(Getty Images: Bettmann)

“Be Our Own Gods”

It was founded by Anton Szandor LaVey, who established the Church of Satan in San Francisco in 1966, and three years later published The Satanic Bible, a collection of essays and rituals that has become central “scripture.” for the Church.

LaVey was a notorious hippy-baiter — he hated the burgeoning peace and love movement at least as much as he hated the Christian church, if not more.

He was also a staunch individualist who formulated a philosophy of what we would today call empowerment.

“What we invoke in Satan is a projection of our best selves – a symbol of pride, freedom and individualism,” says Peter H Gilmore.

“When it comes to celebrating ego and self-deification, we understand that nature is hierarchical and there will always be different levels of people.

“So we are aware of our talents and abilities – but by being our own gods, we can be benevolent gods, and we can treat others in a very charitable and loving way. It’s not about crushing others is how people tend to interpret self-centeredness.”

Hierarchy and weight

This all sounds good and good, but even a quick scan of the Satanic Bible reveals a bewilderingly acute kind of Social Darwinism:

Blessed are the strong, for they shall possess the earth—Cursed are the weak, for they shall inherit the yoke!

Blessed are the mighty, for they shall be revered among men — Cursed are the weak, for they shall be blotted out!

Anton LaVey happened to be an admirer of arch-libertarian Ayn Rand, indeed he once described his own writing as “Ayn Rand with trappings”, and Satanism as “Ayn Rand’s philosophy with ceremony and ritual added”.

Whether LaVey was entirely serious or not—he loved to troll and provoke in interviews—there is no doubt that in his rational selfishness, his celebration of power-differentiated hierarchy, and his aversion to selflessness, The Satanic Bible has a typical Randian flavor.

Burnt pentagram on a wooden floor, a man squatting beside it, in a barn.
The Church of Satan was established in 1966, but this ritual marking was discovered two years earlier, in rural Canada.(Getty Images: Reg Innell)

It is an oft-noted irony that much of the Satanic Bible anticipates the social and economic doctrines of modern Republicans in the United States.

Members of the Church of Satan have pointed out that LaVey’s most problematic beliefs (he was also a eugenicist and often advocated in interviews for the establishment of a police state) are not official COS policy positions and that individual members should not take them as gospel.

But statements by Church of Satan leaders over the years espousing the survival of the fittest as a fundamental law of nature have been too numerous to easily discount.

And it was partly in opposition to this perceived ethic of the force for good that another satanic religious organization was founded in 2013: The Satanic Temple, which is based in Salem, Massachusetts (scene of the infamous witch trials of 1692).

From the outset, The Satanic Temple rejected the apolitical stance of the Church of Satan and threw itself into public affairs with both feet.

Its stated mission is “to encourage benevolence and empathy, to reject tyrannical authority…to oppose injustice and to undertake noble pursuits”.

Its primary targets are manifestations of what founder Lucien Greaves called “theocratic assaults on the separation of church and state,” and the privileging of Christianity over minority religious groups.

In addition to public campaigns protesting (for example) against the erection of Christian monuments on the grounds of public buildings, The Satanic Temple also runs a drug recovery support group, a campaign against corporal punishment in schools, the support for refugees, etc.

Lucien Greaves inside the Satanic Temple in front of the statue of the deity
Lucien Greaves founded The Satanic Temple, which campaigns for abortion access, LGBTQIA+ support, and religious freedom.(Getty Images: The Washington Post)

Satan: Underdog Champion

According to Stephen Long, pastor and member of the Satanic Temple Ordination Council, this activity is entirely consistent with a certain literary interpretation of the figure of Satan.

Like many modern Satanists, Long takes his Satanic cues from John Milton’s 17th century epic poem Paradise Lost, a work that tells the story of Adam and Eve’s disgrace in the Garden of Eden, the expulsion Satan’s subsequent outing from heaven and a three-day battle between God’s angels and Satan’s rebels.

In Paradise Lost, Satan is unquestionably the villain. But he is also one of those irresistibly noble villains, a tragic, dynamic and charismatic anti-hero, who rejects the authority of God.

At the start of the story, Satan – or Lucifer, as he is called at this point – says that it is “better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven”, a statement that has endeared him to romantics and revolutionaries ever since.

“During the 1800s, romantic poets began to view Lucifer in Paradise Lost as a heroic figure,” Long explains.

“The fundamental belief structures of the Western world were being reconfigured, and so it was that at this time he began to be seen as a champion of the alien; a champion of reason and justice. enlightenment. So that’s where I root my Satanism.”

Imposing statue of Baphomet flanked by children with a pentagram in the background
A statue of the Baphomet deity statue is on display at the Satanic Temple in Salem, Massachusetts.(Joseph Prezioso)

A socially just Satanism?

As a former gay Christian who went through ex-gay therapy and other attempts at “deliverance” as a teenager, Stephen Long knows what it’s like to be an outsider. But his view of Satan as a champion of minority rights also informs his understanding of Satanism as a materialistic, carnal religion in interesting ways.

“Satanism is a religion of the body, and my concern as a Satanist is downward, to the earth,” Long says.

“Part of that means material pleasure – but I’m not some kind of libertine, I’m very conservative in the way I live my life.

“As I understand it, the carnality of Satanism must also be placed in the larger context of material conditions, physical conditions – and that includes meeting people’s physical needs. What are the conditions in which people live, and are these conditions fair?

Right now, The Satanic Temple is campaigning for abortion access, LGBTQIA+ support, mental health, education, religious freedom, and more.

So, does this mean that The Satanic Temple is really just a political militant organization dressed in Luciferian robes?

“It’s debatable whether or not TST started out as an activist organization,” Long says, “but we’re a church. We’re a community of religious people.

“The political action of the Temple emerges from deeply held satanic religious beliefs – in the same way that when Quakers get involved in politics, they are not activists posing as Quakers.

“No one would be so stupid as to say that Quakers are just militants posing as religious – it’s the same with Satanists.”

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