What do Satanists believe? It is a topical question, as allegations of Satanism and reports of Satanic activity have become alarmingly mainstream in recent years, especially in the US.
We all know the feverish fantasies of QAnon followers and their belief in the existence of a worldwide network of Satanist pedophiles.
But even among apparently rational people on the American political right, the name of Satan is increasingly omitted, and undesirable cultural phenomena are routinely labeled as “satanic.”
Are there really Satanists? And do they pose some sort of demonic threat to a decent society?
The short answers are (1) yes and (2) no – and behind the terrifying stories lie some fascinating complexities.
From sketchy figure to symbol of freedom
It is worth noting that while the image of Satan in Christian folklore and popular culture is extensive and detailed, in the Bible Satan is a sketchy, minor figure and a surprisingly innocent one.
Satan first shows up in the book of Job (his Hebrew name satan means “adversary” or “adversary”), where he and God appear on perfect friendly terms and even make a friendly bet.
In the New Testament gospels, Satan subjects Jesus to various temptations, but he is easily outwitted by the Son of God. It is suggested in the book of James that even the everyday Christian might find Satan a bit of a pusher: “Be the devil and he will flee from you.”
So far, so harmless. But what do Satanists take from this?
The first and most important thing to understand is that Satanists are generally not devil worshipers. They do not believe in Satan’s existence as a supernatural entity.
Satan functions in modern Satanism more as a symbol of certain things that Satanists revere: freedom, knowledge, fearlessness, power, pleasure. But there is no God figure, and no worship.
Peter H Gilmore, the current High Priest of the International Church of Satan, puts it very simply: “There is no faith or spirituality in Satanism. We are carnal, we are skeptical, we are proud unbelievers.”
So why make it a religion? Why have a church of Satan?
“Satanism understands that we are beings of conceptual consciousness,” Gilmore says, “and our concepts are put together to form symbols.”
This activity includes the establishment 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 perform self-transformation and catharsis – hence the church and religion.”
Anton LaVey is the controversial founder of the Church of Satan. (Getty Images: Bettmann) ‘Our own gods are’
It was founded by Anton Szandor LaVey, who founded 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 a central “scripture” for the church.
LaVey was a notorious hippie lure — he hated the nascent peace and love movement at least as much as he hated the Christian church, if not more.
He was also a devout individualist who articulated a philosophy of what we would today call self-empowerment.
“What we invoke in Satan is a projection of the best in ourselves – 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 our abilities – but by being our own gods, we can be beneficent gods, and we can relate to others in a very charitable and loving way. It’s not about crushing other people That’s how people tend to interpret egocentrism.”
Hierarchy and weight
This all sounds well and good, but even a quick glance through The Satanic Bible reveals a unnervingly steely kind of social Darwinism:
Blessed are the strong, for they shall possess the earth – Cursed be the weak, for they shall inherit the yoke!
Blessed are the mighty, for they shall be honored among men – Cursed be the weak, for they shall be blotted out!
Coincidentally, Anton LaVey was an admirer of arch-libertarian Ayn Rand, and he once described his own writings as “Ayn Rand with attributes”, and Satanism as “Ayn Rand’s philosophy with ceremony and ritual added”.
Whether or not LaVey was entirely serious—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 distaste for altruism, The Satanic Bible has a distinctively Randian tinge. has.
The Church of Satan was founded in 1966, but this ritual marker was discovered in rural Canada two years earlier. (Getty Images: Reg Innell)
It is an often-noted irony that much of The Satanic Bible anticipates the social and economic doctrines of contemporary Republicans in the US.
Church of Satan members have pointed out that LaVey’s more problematic beliefs (he was also a eugenicist, and often advocated in interviews for the creation of a police state) are not official COS policies and that individual members should not view them as gospel.
But statements by Church of Satan leaders over the years espousing Survival of the Fittest as a fundamental law of nature have been too numerous to be easily brushed aside.
And it was partly contrary to this alleged power-making ethos that another Satanic religious organization was founded in 2013: The Satanic Temple, which is located in Salem, Massachusetts (scene of the infamous 1692 witch trials).
From the beginning, The Satanic Temple rejected the apolitical stance of the Church of Satan and jumped into the public domain.
Its stated mission is “to encourage benevolence and empathy, to reject tyrannical authority…to resist injustice and to undertake noble pursuits”.
Its main goals are manifestations of what founder Lucien Greaves has called “theocratic attacks on the separation of church and state,” and favoring Christianity over minority religious groups.
In addition to public campaigns protesting (for example) the erection of Christian monuments on public buildings, The Satanic Temple also has an addiction recovery support group, a campaign against corporal punishment in schools, outreach to refugees, and so on.
Lucien Greaves founded The Satanic Temple, which campaigns for abortion access, LGBTQIA+ support and religious freedom. (Getty Images: The Washington Post)Satan: Champion of the Outsider
According to Stephen Long, who is a minister and a member of The Satanic Temple’s Ordination Council, this activity fits very well with a particular literary interpretation of the figure of Satan.
Like many modern Satanists, Long takes his Satanic orientation from John Milton’s 17th-century epic poem Paradise Lost, a work that tells the story of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace in the Garden of Eden, Satan’s subsequent expulsion from heaven, and a three-day battle between God’s angels and Satan’s rebels.
In Paradise Lost, Satan is without a doubt the villain. But he is also one of those irresistibly noble villains – a tragic antihero, dynamic and charismatic, who opposes the authority of God.
Early in the story, Satan — or Lucifer, as he’s currently known — says it’s “better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven,” a statement that has since endeared him to romantics and revolutionaries.
“During the 1800s, Romantic poets began to view Lucifer in Paradise Lost as a heroic figure,” Long says.
“The fundamental belief structures of the Western world were reconfigured, and at that time he began to be seen as a champion of the outsider; a champion of reason and enlightenment. So that’s where I root my Satanism.”
A statue of the deity Baphomet statue can be seen at The Satanic Temple in Salem, Massachusetts. (Joseph Prezioso) Socially righteous Satanism?
A gay ex-Christian who underwent ex-gay therapy and other attempts at “liberation” in his teens, Stephen Long knows what it’s like to be an outsider. But his perspective on Satan as a champion of minority rights also gives rise in interesting ways to his understanding of Satanism as a materialistic, carnal religion.
“Satanism is a religion of the body, and my concern as a Satanist goes down to the earth,” Long says.
“Some of that means material pleasure – but I’m not some kind of libertine, I’m very conservative in how I live my life.
“As I understand it, the carnality of Satanism must also be placed in the broader context of material conditions, physical conditions – and that includes meeting the physical needs of people. What are the conditions under which people live, and are those circumstances normal?”
Currently, The Satanic Temple campaigns 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 activist organization dressed in Luciferian robes?
“You can argue whether TST started as an activist organization,” Long says, “but we’re a church. We’re a community of religious people.
“The Temple’s political action stems from deeply held satanic religious beliefs — in the same way that when Quakers get involved in politics, they’re not activists posing as Quakers.
“No one would be stupid enough to say that Quakers are just activists posing as religious people – it’s the same with Satanists.”
RN in your inbox
Get more stories beyond the news cycle with our weekly newsletter.