Satanism and Forbidden Knowledge

In a recent presentation at The Satanic Temple’s Salem, Mass Headquarters Religious Studies Professor Joseph P. Laycock discussed the moral panic surrounding Dungeons & Dragons in the 80’s and 90’s. The event was in promotion of his book on the subject ‘Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic over Role-Playing Games Says about Play, Religion, and Imagined Worlds”.

Full Video Here

Religion and Imagined Worlds

I’d like to focus on this part of the talk for a bit because I think it resonates with a lot of the historical underpinnings of Satanism ideologically, and also because it is a good avenue into the ongoing discussion Satanic groups have generated about non-theistic religion and what, in fact, constitutes religion in the first place. The moral panics of the 80s and 90s lead to harmless games like Dungeons & Dragons, and harmless rock music, being labeled Satanic because of their magical and vaguely occultish themes. But I think more importantly, they offered a competing narrative to mainstream religion as a way to give context to the world, and that made religious leaders afraid because thinking leads to questions. Now of course, people who were actually playing Dungeons and Dragons knew it was just collaborative storytelling and didn’t think any of it was true. But as G.K. Chesterton once said:

“Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”

What does any of this have to do with Satanism?

I’m glad you asked.

In Laycock’s discussion he begins to broach this subject of the intersection between artful imaginings and the religious worldview as a way to contextualize the world around you. This contextualization is, to my mind, what’s important about TST’s claim to religious status. Throughout the discussion Laycock establishes that there are aspects of tabletop gaming that are akin to religion in that they offer a space for people to step back and think about the world within a different framework. In the case of gaming it’s through rules and stats that attempt to be a represent reality. In the case of Satanists, at least of the Romantic variety, it is through a rich history that reframes the narrative of the Abrahamic faiths into one in which Satan is an archetypical rebellious hero who has been unfairly vilified by an unrepentant megalomaniac.

When you get right down to it, I just think he's the good guy. Source: Gustave Doré, 1866, Public Domain
When you get right down to it, I just think he’s the good guy. Source: Gustave Doré, 1866, Public Domain

It isn’t the literal belief in the story that makes a religion a religion. For example, Catholic dogma recognizes the story in Genesis to be a parable and rather liberally picks and chooses what parts of its scripture are literal or metaphorical. The Satanic narrative is one in which a coup is staged against a totalitarian dictator. (Which is really a discussion for literary theory that I want to expand on in a later article.) For now though, let’s focus on why many of us consider some stories important enough to deserve adherence to the principles we believe they espouse.

We don’t tend to think of fantasy stories like the kind D&D is based on as religion anymore, but in point of fact that’s what they stem from. These tales of dragons and magic all come from earlier times where people really did believe in such things. The mythologies of older cultures, while no one (or almost no one) actually believes them anymore, persist for the same reason; they teach lessons that are very difficult to convey otherwise. The Iliad is still a great work, not because of its poetry (because let’s face it, you’re probably not reading it in ancient Greek) but because its stories convey a set of values. Comic books (another medium that was vilified for decades) do very much the same thing. The reason these stories persist and parents read them to their children is because their symbolism teaches, that’s what good stories do. That’s also what religions try to do. The problem is, when it comes to the Abrahamic faiths, they appear to me to have misread the story. I don’t believe in a literal Satan, but I definitely believe that Satan isn’t the bad guy in those stories.

Now, is that enough to make Satanism a religion? Not in and of itself, no. But I think in the case of Satanism the cultural and artistic milieu is so rich and diverse that it also provides a sense of identity, especially in the context of an increasingly theocratic society. Chesterton’s St. George (and D&D) teach that dragons can be slain. If you lived in a world that still predominantly believed in (and worshiped) dragons saying such a thing might make you a heretic. Stories of Lucifer and Satan teach that gods can be fought; and in today’s world saying such things definitely makes me a heretic to certain people. That’s an important lesson.

Reasoned thinking is great, But it isn’t all we are

Humans are, by nature, both thinking and feeling creatures. The narratives we use to shape our beliefs are important because they allow us to consider our morals and ethics emotionally instead of intellectually. We can, as some secular thinkers do, look intellectually at issues like freedom and servitude and attempt to deduce what the right thing to do is. But the stories we employ when thinking about why freedom is good or why we should be inspired to defend principles like liberty and autonomy come from our emotional reflections on our own experiences which include our interactions with art and literature (and yes, tabletop gaming for some).

This all ties back in to moral panics that seek to demonize things like gaming or art because the core principle of trying to prevent people from engaging with different ideas is to keep them from thinking certain ideas. To Satanists like myself this is best expressed artistically in works like Paradise Lost, it gives context to why I believe in the principles I believe. For others it’s Anatole France, or Blake, or hell (pardon the pun) even LaVey. Now from an intellectual perspective this could be called argumentum ad passiones, and in fairness without supporting arguments grounded in reason it could be. But to some extent it’s a matter of fighting fire with fire since emotional appeal is how authoritarian theocracy tries to compel submission to their ideas, and given their success we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss it. So I don’t feel particularly bad about employing it too in an effort to fight back.

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  • Gadianton P. Robbers

    I liked this post a lot and I agree with most of it. I just happened upon it, having the magic world of the eighties on my mind lately. I wonder if you’re downplaying the “harmlessness” of D&D and rock music somewhat; perhaps informed with hindsight. In a somewhat well-known interview with Ronnie James Dio, I think it was from around 2004, Dio — the man who is credited with inventing the index and pinkie devil horn sign — clarified his belief in God and generally, in being a good person. He said that he believes it’s important to make this clarification because if you don’t clarify, it allows the imagination to wander and that hateful or extreme beliefs accredited where they were not intended. But it’s just that very open space where “the devil can be anything” that keeps people intrigued and Christianity had a huge vested interest in fueling the fire. There is no single way that it went down, but the way it did in my neck of the woods, was that D&D was always played carefully, by kids with a religious upbringing, who feared that taken too far and it could actually unleash the power of the devil and I do remember stories where such situations had occurred.

    D&D was on the same plane as hair rock and Ouija boards, but my friends and I did no know that it was just “hair rock” and I really believed if you chopped up a Ouija board it would re-assemble itself and appear under your bed. So, either nobody was clarifying in the eighties or there wasn’t a great medium for clarification. We have a good medium for clarification now: the Internet. I think the Internet has quenched society’s belief in magic extensively though oddly, as aggravated its thirst for bad arguments. Nobody believes the devil really has any power anymore, and really, the last holdout for magic is Pentecostal Christianity, which is why many hair-rock musicians with vaguely occultish tendencies from the eighties become reborn Christians.

    So yes, in retrospect, we know that all this stuff was really free-spirited artistry and publicity stunts, but back then, there seemed to really be a possibility with evil that just doesn’t exist anymore.

  • Well I mean … if the argument is that D&D and rock music lead to Satanism I’m not exactly the best person to argue against that. Look how I turned out.