This week’s entry: Satanism
What it’s about: While on the surface Satanism is a religion with the devil at its center, the reality is more complicated. There are many strains of Satanists—some actually do worship Satan in place of God—but most see the devil as a symbol for individuality, free will, rebellion against a hierarchical religion, or just plain rebellion.
Strangest fact: The Church Of Satan doesn’t worship Satan. Founded in 1966 by Anton LaVey, the organization is described as an “atheistic and materialistic religion.” Its followers believe in neither God nor the devil, but idealize Satan as a symbol of “pride, carnality, liberty, enlightenment, and undefiled wisdom.” (The concept of Satan as a bestower of wisdom is a common one among Satanists, as he is strongly associated with the biblical serpent that encourages Eve to eat the fruit of knowledge.) Instead, the Church Of Satan venerates the individual, embracing social Darwinism and meritocracy. The Church claims to have originated the term “Satanist,” but disavows anyone who actually does worship Satan in a theological sense.
Biggest controversy: No surprise that Satanism stirs up controversy, but some of the biggest controversies have involved people who didn’t claim to be Satanists, but were accused by an outside party—usually a Christian church. Witch trials in Europe and colonial America nearly always centered on accusations that the accused were in league with the devil. The Catholic Church has also accused pagans who follow Greek, Norse, or other pre-Christian gods as in fact worshipping Satan and his minions.
Thing we were happiest to learn: All the best bands are affiliated with Satan. No genre has been more connected with Satanism than black metal, as the label was originally applied to a subset of metal bands with heavily Satanic lyrics. However, apart from King Diamond, a legitimate Satanist, the first wave of black metal bands simply used devil imagery for shock value. However, by the 1990s, black metal had embraced Satan wholeheartedly, and Norwegian bands in particular favored a more devil-worshipping strain of Satanism than the Church Of Satan’s metaphorical worship.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Some Satanists have been putting non-metaphorical evil into the world. The Order Of Nine Angles promotes a fascistic brand of Satanism built around the ideas of David Myatt, a prominent British neo-Nazi who later became an Islamic extremist. His pamphlet, “A Practical Guide To Aryan Revolution,” seems to have influenced terrorist bombings in 1999. The Order also encourages human sacrifice, suggesting “there must be a culling… which remove the worthless and those detrimental to further evolution.”
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Satanism qualifies as a social movement, and Wikipedia provides an in-depth look at the theory behind why and how social movements arise. There are several partially conflicting theories; some believe movements arise when a critical mass of people feel disenfranchised in a society and are empowered by a drive for social change. Others believe seemingly populist movements can’t succeed without support or at least tacit approval of at least one powerful faction.
Further down the wormhole: Many historical figures have been claimed to be Satanists, including Mani (founder of Manichaeism); Johann Georg Faust, a German alchemist and astrologer who some believed had sold his soul to the devil (and is the subject of the works by Marlowe and Goethe which bear his name); and Donatien Alphonse François, better known by his title, the Marquis De Sade. The French aristocrat, politician, and libertine probably wasn’t a Satanist, but he did push the boundaries of how much personal freedom society would accept. We’ll look at the man who gave us the word “sadistic” next week.