In a few recent conversations I’ve had on social media, some interesting issues have come up re: “What is Satanism?” In particular, if atheistic Satanists “don’t believe in” Satan, what do they believe that justifies associating themselves with the name? To outsiders, it may well seem that the theistic Satanist “really believes in something,” whilst the atheistic one is “just” trolling – either for one political side, or the other. So is atheistic Satanism “just” slapping Satan’s name on your preferred form of progressive, reactionary or libertarian politics randomly? Such a question leaves me feeling it might be beneficial to walk folks through the logic of “a Satanic ethos”…
Introduction: “Satanism” and “Politics”
There are few faster ways of getting mocked by progressives than proclaiming “X is apolitical.” Why is this derided, though? Because by proclaiming something outside of politics, you fence it off from it from political analysis. “Apolitical” then amounts to “I support the status quo by refusing to engage with any actually-meaningful political questions.” For this reason, I personally see no value in the assertion that “Satanism should be apolitical” – or any other religion, for that matter.
I do think, however, that “Satanism should not just be about politics.” In saying that, I reject two things.
The first is “Satanists” who prioritize the pet causes of their political tribe over Satanism itself. These are people who go around saying things like “Only people who support X are real Satanists,” when i) in fact, many actual Satanists have no particular interest in X – i.e. it’s an incorrect claim descriptively; and also ii) they’ve put forward no argument re: why X is “Satanic” – i.e. it’s an unsupported claim normatively.
The second is “Satanic organizations” who reduce Satanism solely to political activism. This irritates me especially when it seems aimed just at pressuring those who use the term “Satanist” to support that particular group (i.e. see previous point), whilst failing to appreciate reasons other than political activism why people gravitate toward Satanism.
In talking this way, I imply that there is something Satanism “means” that is separable from specific political causes. Yet that “something” is, at the same time, not apolitical. What, then, is this “something”?
A “common core” of Satanism?
I argue that there are certain principles inherent in anything that can meaningfully be called “Satanism.” Two things are worth noting about these.
First, these principles are each inherent in mythological accounts of Satan. Thus, they are meaningful both to the theist who thinks Satan is “real,” and the atheist who just sees the literary figure of Satan as an inspiring role-model.
Second, these principles can be interpreted and applied in different ways. Right-wing and left-wing atheistic Satanists, I argue, differ more in their interpretations and applications than regarding principles themselves.
In my view, then, there are certain fundamentals that “make” Satanism “Satanic.” Two things follow about my perspective. One is that I do not define Satanism as requiring a person to be “left” or “right” politically. The other, however, is that certain ways of expressing and pursuing one’s political goals do clash with Satanic values. Said tactics are therefore inappropriate for a Satanist regardless of whether they are on the left or the right.
What I will articulate are 4 principles I think most Satanic denominations implicitly recognize. I will introduce each with a quote from Nine Keys of Abyssal Darkness’ introduction to Satanism. This will be followed by discussion of the mythological precedent and implications of each principle.
Affirmation of the earthly world
Whether via indulging the senses, appreciating attainments in the arts and sciences, or fighting for this-worldly justice instead of accepting otherworldly compensation, Satanism asserts that the full enjoyment of our lives here and now ought to be our top priority.
Pretty much any time Satan tempts someone, the offer entails fuller indulgence in worldly things. Consider the forbidden fruit (Eve) and stones turned into bread (Christ). Both evoke indulgence in sensory pleasures, and the validity of fulfilling the needs and wants of our physical bodies. Faust sought knowledge, power, and a never-ending kaleidoscope of new sensations; Christ’s other two temptations (offered kingdoms of the world; urged to openly display a miracle) recall similar themes. “Deviant” sexualities, too-sensual art and unprecedented discoveries of science are all things that have been called “Satanic.” Yet who can blame people for making a “diabolic pact” when they can both enjoy themselves and advance the horizons of human experience thereby?
Diversity: Different priorities
Those familiar with Satanism will already recognize denominations I am alluding to in the quotation. The Satanic Temple (TST)’s earthly affirmation is manifest in seeking better lives for people via upholding justice, bodily integrity, etc. LaVey’s Church of Satan (CoS) seems more interested in fulfillment via self-interested goods of pleasure, wealth, etc. And Luciferians typically seek more “elevated” things besides, e.g. knowledge, self-insight, etc. All agree, however, that our individual existence / current earthly form is something we should make the best of. We therefore all reject arbitrary religious rules, societal expectations, etc. that obstruct whatever forms of meaningful fulfillment we seek.
Imperative: Seek not to restrict others’ sources of fulfillment
It is no problem if Satanists disagree on what form of earthly affirmation should be prioritized. I assert, though, that no Satanist should ever demean, interfere with or seek to restrict others’ sources of meaningful fulfillment. You can argue about what I should read, what I should spend money on, how I express myself sexually, etc. But if you seek to ban or limit alternatives that you disagree with, you are “doing Satanism wrong.”
Right-wing example: If you have personal opinions about how men and women “should” act, that is your opinion. But make space for people who see it differently and cannot flourish within the framework that you posit. (Example: there’s a difference between personally wanting a life partner who will be a good mother while accepting that parenthood isn’t for everyone, and being the kind of caveman dumbass who thinks no woman can ever be happy without babies. IMO, a Satanist can have the former view as part of their personally-chosen values, but the latter is un-Satanic because it imposes upon the freedom and flourishing of women who don’t want children.)
Left-wing example: If you object to art and artists that depict dark fantasies contrary to your politics, you are free to not engage with that art. But don’t try to get art and artists cancelled.
Point: if I see a “Satanist” on any side of the political spectrum trying to play “pleasure police,” I am inclined to accuse that person of “not getting” Satanism.
Adversarial stance toward “the sacred”
Satanism mocks at idols and demands justification for what others take for granted. It does not tolerate, much less submit to, that which stifles the individual. The Satanist criticizes and rejects unjust authorities, dysfunctional institutions, and overrated ideologies of all kinds.
The story of Satan’s fall entails him seeking to outshine God. Such ambition constitutes a challenge against the notion that God’s cosmic order is the “best” order that could be established. This sort of rebellion is also implicit in Satan encouraging Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. In so doing, Eve and Adam reject God’s stifling of their potential. Both “falls” are stories about the rejection of arbitrary restriction. The Eden story also speaks, though, to a good that is only accessible once one has overcome restriction: the freedom of an inquisitive mind to seek its own knowledge – and to thereby construct its own meaningful picture of the world, instead of merely accepting what others have imposed.
Diversity: Opposition to external imposition
Left-wing Satanism calls for fighting capitalism, the patriarchy, etc. because these forces have detrimental effects on marginalized people. On the right, meanwhile, one finds suspicion toward secular authorities, lest these powers arbitrarily restrict peoples’ lives. Both right and left -wing Satanism, however, reject traditional religious imposition. It thus seems to me that really, we all want freedom. We are just arguing about what freedom means, whose freedom matters most, what systems best promote freedom, etc.
Imperative: Do not create new formulations of “the sacred”
Liberation is, I think, an imperative of Satanism generally, even if we disagree about what we need liberation from. It is not very “liberated,” though, to knock down old idols only to immediately replace them with new ones. Atheistic Satanists who become overinvested in politics strike me as doing this very thing. They pride themselves on being “too smart” for traditional religion. But then they embrace some political position that is arguable, refuse to read books that challenge it, and shut down dissenters because “only a bad person could believe that.” I see this behavior as a cowardly retreat from Satanism’s adversarial essence, via declaring “actually, you can’t question some things after all.”
Right-wing example: Clings to a simplistic understanding of libertarianism, capitalism, etc. Mindlessly labels anyone with a different view as a “hippie communist,” dismissing the possibility that the critic might have valid points that it could broaden their perspective on the world to hear out.
Left-wing example: Clings to simplistic formulations of cultural appropriation, “what real feminism is,” etc., and presumes anyone who critiques these can only have evil motives. Dismisses the possibility that there might be valid left-wing concerns that certain marginalized groups are going unheard within existing left-wing ideology, that feminism is falling short of its own ideals, or etc.
Point: If I see a “Satanist” on any side of the political spectrum acting as if questioning their political views is “sacrilege,” I feel they have maybe not thought hard enough about the right to rebel inherent in Satanism. And x10 over if it seems like they are peculiarly hostile to the concept of “devil’s advocate” – like, really?
Encouragement of self-empowerment
Balancing the hedonistic tendency of Satanism is a drive toward self-knowledge and self-discipline aimed at fulfilling the Nietzschean ideal of being one’s own God. Disdaining the complacency of the herd, Satanists prize wisdom and endurance as virtues that promote self-evolution.
The Serpent promises Eve that upon eating the apple, she and Adam will be as gods. This aspiration to be more is inherent too in Satan’s own rebellion against God. What we have here is thus essentially the positive side of what the previous section phrased negatively. Satan’s mythology entails heavy themes of opposing tyranny and seeking freedom from arbitrary imposition. The same stories also propose, however, that there’s a positive good in evolving beyond what you are presently. “More” is also a good proposed by the previous theme of temptation. The difference here, though, lies in the acknowledgment that fulfillment requires not just indulgence, but also discipline. Discipline is empowering because without it, one cannot weather the difficulties necessary to attain long-term forms of meaningful fulfillment.
Diversity: The aspiration to overcome
The current principle is preached most overtly by right-leaning forms of Satanism. These are the kinds of denominations that say, as a Satanist you ought to take pride enough in yourself to maintain some degree of physical fitness, etc. It seems to me, though, that self-empowerment aspirations aren’t absent on the left, just presented with different emphasis. The left is less preoccupied with what to do to become empowered than with what prevents people from becoming thus. Hence the concern one finds there with critiquing unjust systems, helping the marginalized, etc. Personally I find it counterproductive both when the left frames individual empowerment as victim-blaming, and when the right frames systemic critique as excuse-making for slackers. It seems to me actually, both are laboring on behalf of human evolution, not competing or mutually-exclusive. Satanism thus ought to have room for both.
Imperative: Emphasize merit instead of group membership
One thing I think Satanism does not have room for, however, is bigotry. Under no circumstances should a Satanist be pre-judging someone else’s “potential” or “fit” as a Satanist based on sex, race, or etc. Both Satan’s fall and the fall of humans are essentially protests against the restriction of someone else’s prejudgments. God won’t let Satan or humans step outside of the boundaries he has set for them. Had everyone stayed in their places, the result would be a vast squandering of possibilities. We ought not, then, to similarly squander the possibilities of our fellow human beings by insisting they fit into whatever boxes we think we already know.
I’m not saying that the left never falls afoul of this, but it tends to be more a problem with right-wing Satanism. “The white race has more Faustian potential than others” and so forth. Regardless though, if I see a “Satanist” on any side of the political spectrum writing off whole groups of people out of hand, I count that as a fail. It’s frankly idiotic to think that skin color, gender or etc. predict a person’s intelligence, strength, etc. Even if there are “averages,” each and every person you meet could just happen to be outside of that “average,” and you ought, then, to give them a chance. An open mind on such matters is surely more “Satanic” than a closed one.
A rejection of feel-good metaphysical claims
Among established Satanic denominations stand both atheistic mainliners and esotericists who advocate a supernatural perspective. No Satanist, however, believes that some kind of benevolent force or deity is in charge of the universe. Satanism rejects the wishful thinking behind such beliefs as “God has a plan” or “the fundamental basis of the universe is love.” It prefers instead to live in reality, and to speak openly about whatever dark truths must be confronted there.
The mythological portrayal of Satan is, if nothing else, consistently antagonistic. He’s the adversary, accuser, Prince of Darkness, etc. Why does the Satanist nonetheless take him as “the good guy”? The short answer is, because God is worse. God demands arbitrary restraint; Satan promotes liberation. Atrocities are justified in God’s name, for the sake of “fighting Satan.” The more God is then used as the shield of the hypocrite, the more Satan becomes the banner of those who see through said hypocrisy.
Some dislike the “negativity” of taking up the name of “Satan,” complaining that we thus define ourselves by what we oppose. Why nonetheless take up the name of the cosmic villain? I think much of it reflects Satanists being morally-mature enough to grasp the historical unpopularity of their position. It’s like saying “yes, we know that you see us as the bad guys – and we don’t fucking care.” Or taken further: “We’re not like you, requiring accolades and good-guy badges as ‘rewards’ for having the ‘right’ ideology.” Satanism is thus self-consciously counter-cultural. It proclaims things that many people will find unpleasant. It is not then rocket science to anticipate others seeing the Satanist as “dark,” “sinister,” etc.
Diversity: Gothic optimism
It is surely no coincidence that Satanism – all denominations – includes many who wear black, like metal music, etc. Inherent in this aesthetic is a sublime element, evocative of danger, darkness and death. And yet, Satanists are not as a rule depressive or pessimistic. Rather, we affirm life despite openly recognizing its dark side. We do not require some benevolent force to be in charge of the universe before we can celebrate our own existence.
Imperative: Respectability and safety are not what Satanism is about
Now, what I say here may be more a matter of personal taste, i.e. less philosophically sound than previous points. Frankly though, I dislike people who seem to want a “respectable” or “safe” Satanism. For example, why take human rights concepts that the mainstream already widely accepts and randomly slap “Satan” on them? Draw on Satanic mythology for notions of liberty and etc., and I can just barely stomach such moves as “Satanic.” But add cutesy “after school Satan clubs,” and cuddly demands for “safe spaces,” and I have to ask: why are you in Satanism? Like, have you not noticed that Satan is decidedly badass, whilst you are decidedly not?
Whereas the bigotry problem is more of a right-wing issue, the “let’s be nice Satanists” one is toward the left – i.e. obviously it is TST-type Satanism I am talking about in the previous paragraph. Regardless though, if I see a “Satanist” on any side of the political spectrum who seems desirous of sanitizing the religion, I feel compelled to ask why they are a Satanist at all. By all means establish “the Satanic community” inclusively as a braver space – i.e. a place where we are all strong and resilient enough to express our true selves – if that’s important to you. But STFU about “safe.” Or at least sit down a minute and ask yourself some hard questions about why you are so insistent on siding with the Adversary whilst being so allergic to adversity.
I am, again, not in the business of saying that only left-wing or right-wing Satanism is “real” Satanism. Absent the theistic element, either can be legitimately “Satanic” so long as their ethos entails:
- Affirmation of enjoyable, constructive elements of worldly life
- Steadfast devotion to questioning dogmas
- Seeking to enhance individuals’ agency
- Self-awareness re: seeming “dark” to mainstream society
Conversely, the following are Satanic “fails” that either side may be guilty of:
- Policing pleasure and otherwise interfering with others’ enjoyment of life
- Replacing old dogmas with new ones
- Presuming that shallow demographic markers delimit Satanic potentiality
- Empty branding of that which is neither sublime nor challenging as “Satanic”
Thoughts on key defining aspects of Satanism I’m missing? Or concerns/objections re: my “big tent” of Satanism here is too big / not big enough? Let me know in the comments.
As well as edits for stylistic consistency etc. and updates to excerpts from my book to reflect final revisions on Aug 22/23, some readers previously had difficulties imagining what I had in mind as far as a case where someone can have a right-wing-ish opinion without necessarily imposing it on everyone, so I’ve tried adding a more fleshed-out example.