The devils in the details

My friend Jacques Rousseau has done me the favour of writing (and improving) the article I was busy with (I was so writing this before him!), before I began having serious Internet problems.

South African media – and perhaps international – has managed to develop a rhetoric of speaking of Satanism as some bizarre evil thing, which tends to involve broken teenagers, murder and/or suicide. This has come as a result of numerous murders and other crimes, where the accused have muttered something about Satanism. This might be what perpetrators call it but that would be doing a disservice to Satanists, Satanism and, more importantly, reality.

Even though we [in South Africa] are ostensibly guaranteed freedom of religion by our Constitution, a minority religion like Satanism (and to a lesser extent, various Pagan religions) are almost universally a shorthand for evil – largely because what people understand by “Satanism” is exactly what Christians would want it to be.

In other words, media discourse (and therefore, public understanding) around Satanism is akin to reading a Tottenham Hotspur supporter’s analysis of Arsenal’s virtues (for those who don’t know football, this is sort of like asking a Soviet prisoner to recommend accommodation in the Gulag).

For a religion that exists in multiple forms in any case, understanding it through the lens of its strongest critic can never conduce to a sensible reading. And sadly, it’s exactly the Christian reading – with its concepts of “devils”, “evil”, and “sacrifice”, that give rise to confused and troubled kids deciding that it’s time to skin a rabbit or set fire to a friend.

Whether they’re “inspired” by what they’ve seen on TV, read in bad books, or whatever, is beside the point. For now, we need to clarify what the Church of Satan and Satanists actually think. For example, the official Church of Satan website has a large number of FAQ’s responded to. To list merely the first three.

A. Why do Satanists worship The Devil?

We don’t. Satanists are atheists. We see the universe as being indifferent to us, and so all morals and values are subjective human constructions.

Our position is to be self-centered, with ourselves being the most important person (the “God”) of our subjective universe, so we are sometimes said to worship ourselves. Our current High Priest Gilmore calls this the step moving from being an atheist to being an “I-Theist.”

Satan to us is a symbol of pride, liberty and individualism, and it serves as an external metaphorical projection of our highest personal potential. We do not believe in Satan as a being or person.

B. Do Satanists perform sacrifices?

No. We are atheists. The only people who perform sacrifices are those who believe in supernatural beings who would consider a sacrifice to be some form of payment for a request or form of worship. Since we do not believe in supernatural beings there is no reason for a Satanist to make a sacrifice of any sort.

C. I heard that Satanism supports sex with children and other ways to harm them—how do you justify that?

Satanism has strong rules prohibiting sexual activity with children and non-human animals. In fact, if a Church of Satan member abuses children sexually or otherwise, his membership is automatically terminated without possibility for re-instatement. The Church of Satan also does not accept anyone who is not legally adult as an Active Member. In Satanism, sexual activity is only advocated between consenting adults.

I find a lot of their philosophy suspect, but at least they advocate some fairly secular forms of ethics: thinking for oneself, non-pretentiousness, no unnecessary harming of animals, etc.

Whatever you might think of Satanism, at least we need to think of it in the form actually advocated, actually believed – not in the caricature cooked up in the pot of outrage by the media, with a light sprinkle of Christian paranoia. This matters because the more accurate we are in what we’re focused on – whether attacking or examining – the better we can be in challenging it.

After all, if you don’t have a clear picture of what you’re attacking – whether it’s a pagan belief or someone’s view on gun control – the only attack you can mount would be against a Strawman you’ve created, not the reality of the situation.

This makes you ineffective and either instills the false idea that you’re making progress as a battler of bad ideas or undermines a potentially fruitful conversation. Let’s be accurate, even if we dislike the topic: at least we can claim to know exactly what we’re disliking, opposing and so on.


  1. machintelligence says

    Given the choice between calling myself an atheist or a Satanist, I’ll take atheist, thank you very much. This is in spite of the fact that many Christians in the USA seem to have a problem distinguishing between the two. If you feel otherwise, don’t let me stop you.

    Our position is to be self-centered, with ourselves being the most important person (the “God”) of our subjective universe, so we are sometimes said to worship ourselves. Our current High Priest Gilmore calls this the step moving from being an atheist to being an “I-Theist.”

    This sounds a great deal like Ayn Randian libertarianism. I hope it doesn’t share their “I’m fine, fuck you very much” attitude. FWIW I think calling your leader a high priest is taking the parody a bit far, but whatever.

  2. Nick Gotts says

    Our position is to be self-centered, with ourselves being the most important person (the “God”) of our subjective universe, so we are sometimes said to worship ourselves.

    This is an accusation often falsely made against atheists in general. From what you say, and your link, “Satanism” as represented by the “Church of Satan” is a combination of selfishness and silliness. But given the quote above, it would be foolish to take anything a representative of the Church of Satan says at face value, since in the service of their god – themselves – they could presumably lie without compunction.

  3. Sercee says

    I’ve always been a fan of Satanism. I’m not a Satanist, but I agree with a lot of their philosophy. If you go through that list in the last link, the only one I personally disagree with strongly is #5 – I don’t do vengeance, if I turn the other cheek it’s because you’re not worth my energy, and if I choose to do something about a transgression it’s with the aim of improving something.

    The rest of it makes sense to a large degree to someone who wants to live their life fully. Experience things, don’t abstain because it’s a “sin” or something. Don’t allow yourself to be surrounded by negative people who refuse to do anything for themselves and only bring you down. Reward the good and self responsible. A lot of it boils down to respect and loving yourself. I don’t see what’s wrong with that.

    As for the religious parody part, a lot of that was on purpose. LeVey (and Gilmore, and their buddies) did want to spite the church and created “black rituals” to oppose the Christian ones. They didn’t sacrifice anything, as mentioned above, just pretty much had a gothic satire fun fest (perhaps even an orgy or several) at specified times of year, intoning chants and incantations that, as atheists, they knew wouldn’t open the doors to demons or anything. Just piss off the church.

  4. B-Lar says

    Let “Do What Thou Wilt” be the whole of the law; but do not suffer foolishness, for wilful and deluded stupidity is the only sin man can commit.

    (or something very similar)

  5. CaitieCat says

    a Tottenham Hotspur supporter’s analysis of Arsenal’s virtues

    Hey, that’s not fair! I praised the ARSEnal once.

    AW said he hadn’t seen any of the six obvious penalties and/or red cards that should have been shown to his thugs players in a game, and I said he was AMAZING at not-seeing. 😉