Religious But Not Spiritual: Modern Satanism in the Atheist Community

Religious But Not Spiritual: Modern Satanism in the Atheist Community September 25, 2017

We’re coming up on what I consider a very special date in history. This Saturday will mark the 10 year anniversary of the recording of ‘The Four Horsemen’ video in which Christopher Hitchens, Dan Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris discussed the rise of Atheism. The video represents an interesting turning-point in the secular community and I think is one of the most influential videos of “New Atheism”. September 30th is also coincidentally International Blasphemy Day in commemoration of the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons in 2005.

Those events definitely set the tone for ‘what atheism is’ over the better part of my 20s and 30s.  The salient point being, as Hitchens would say “Religion Poisons Everything”. Indeed, it’s interesting how words like theism and religion are used interchangeably in the Horsemen video. Hitchens’ book title, perhaps more than any other, has lead to what I consider an unfortunate dogma within the Atheist community. Is religion really the issue? Our species, after all, seems pretty hard-wired for it. But to many Atheists acknowledging any positives of religion is almost its own kind of atheistic heresy.

This dogma has made it difficult for the Atheist community to reconcile non-belief with the kind of community and outreach that are typically provided by religion. There have been fits and starts. Atheism+ was 2012’s fizzled “new-wave” which tried to meld progressive ideology with Atheistic identity. Unfortunately for the plussers as it turns out there are a lot of atheists who simply aren’t progressive but ardently defensive of Atheism as an identity. Conversely, the apolitical Sunday Assembly is an earnest attempt to provide religion’s sense of spectacle, but their neutral stance on positive belief claims renders them ineffectual as a way to marshal support for secular causes. Humanists have achieved a certain level of success, but their efforts to put a joyful and inoffensive face on non-belief continues to come off rather benign.

Put simply: Atheism, in and of itself, lacks ethos
Gustave Doré c. 1866, Public Domain
Gustave Doré c. 1866, Public Domain

At the same time, modern Satanism had been going about it’s business out of the public eye since the death of Anton LaVey in 1997. This left Satanism’s influence on culture largely relegated to early internet chat rooms, bulletin boards, rock music, and with a few exceptions a largely obscure arts culture. This time of subdued publicity and interest in Satanism is not hard to understand. The Satanic Panic was still very fresh in everyone’s collective mind in the late 90’s and early 2000’s.

During the Panic anything even remotely subversive was labeled Satanic and people were obsessed with imagined notions of some grand Satanic cult conspiracy. “Satanic” was a rhetorical cudgel used to shun and ostracize. False accusations were many, levels of hysteria were high. It made absolute sense, at the time, for adherents of a religion based on self-empowerment and fulfillment of personal goals to say ‘maybe I should keep this to myself’.

But as a metaphorical figure Satan is nothing if not one to buck the system and challenge the status quo. It’s this ethos of Satan as the adversary of a tyrannical deity that I think is the driving factor of renewed interest in Satanic thought and philosophy. Perhaps more than that though, is what Satanism provides that mere Atheism cannot. Regardless of whether we’re talking about the The Satanic Temple, the Church of Satan, or any of the other numerous Satanic organizations out there Satanists make positive belief claims rooted in a narrative that has largely been thrust upon them.

To quote Michelle Shortt, Chapter Head of The Satanic Temple-Arizona at a recent speaking engagement for Freethought Arizona:

“We believe the concept of worshiping something above you is antithetical to being a Satanist. So we worship no gods, we have no masters and we simply use the metaphor of Satan as a character that we model ourselves by, a figure that stands up to arbitrary authority against all odds. So we believe that is something very noble on the part of Lucifer and we see god as tyrant … when people call us evil, what does that really mean? You have people at the pulpit who are molesting children and they’re considered good because they’re religious but they’re calling us evil. We take that, we take the position of the scapegoat and we wear it proudly … if you stand here godless, you’ve probably been considered a Satanist before. You’ve been demonized by your own community … we own up to the label that we’ve been given, and we call ourselves Satanists.”

I don’t say any of this to try and convince you

Satanism definitely isn’t for everyone. I’m well aware of the fact that many of my Atheist friends (and for that matter other Satanists) think that The Satanic Temple is merely political theater masquerading as religion. Others don’t feel a need for our rituals or psychodrama and just find the whole thing silly. That’s fine. I’m not trying to sell you on it. But there are many in the Atheist community who say “all religions are bad”. As we approach Blasphemy Day and I reflect on this past decade, I’m struck by how to some Atheists it is a sort of blasphemy of its own to claim otherwise.

I welcome your discussion in the comments but please see our comment policy on the About page. Play nice.

Photo:  Gustave Doré/via wikimedia

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  • Detryck von Doom

    I love everything about this article.

    Ave Satanas.

  • Satanism,isn’t a Religion,it’s a philosophy. we a WOLF,call ourselves Satheists. Satanic Atheists. Satan as an act of Rebellion,Atheism as fact. Hail Satan!

  • LuciferDreaming

    Great post.
    As someone who was raised (brainwashed) as an Evangelical Christian, and who deconverted in my late 20s, atheism on its own felt a bit “dry”. Satanism provides a compelling narrative, and also enables me to re-purpose and re-interpret some of the symbols and myths I grew up (which, as hard as I try, simply won’t disappear from my pysche).

  • I respectfully disagree. I mean is there Satanic philosophy by which we think about our actions? Yes, sure. But is there a set of beliefs by which our action is guided? Also yes. Just because those beliefs don’t involve the supernatural doesn’t make it not a religion and since Atheism isn’t a religion there’s no contradiction. Ave

  • rationalobservations?

    As an atheist I am equally dismissive of all the many millions of gods, goddesses and god-men invented by men. It appears ridiculous to emulate all those down all history who have sought to defeat the totalitarianism of one religion with another brand of religion that always ends up in totalitarianism merely re-branded. That, of course; includes those godless religions of communism and christian driven fascism.

    However:
    Who has killed more, Satan or God?
    And the LORD said unto Satan, Whence comest thou? Then Satan answered the LORD, and said, From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it. Job 1:7
    In a previous post, I counted the number of people that were killed by God in the Bible. I came up with 2,476,633, which, of course, greatly underestimates God’s total death toll, since it only includes those killings for which specific numbers are given. No attempt was made to include the victims of Noah’s flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, or the many plagues, famines, fiery serpents, etc., with which the good book is filled. Still, 2 million is a respectable number even for world class killers.
    But how does this compare with Satan? How many did he kill in the Bible?
    Well I can only find ten, and even these he shares with God, since God allowed him to do it as a part of a bet. I’m talking about the seven sons and three daughters of Job.
    There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job … And there were born unto him seven sons and three daughters.

    And the LORD said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil? Then Satan answered the LORD … put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face. And the LORD said unto Satan, Behold, all that he hath is in thy power; only upon himself put not forth thine hand. So Satan went forth from the presence of the LORD.

    And there was a day when his sons and his daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house…And, behold, there came a great wind from the wilderness, and smote the four corners of the house, and it fell upon the young men, and they are dead; and I only am escaped alone to tell thee. — Job 1:1-19
    So it seems that both Satan and God share the blame (or the credit) for these killings. If so, then the tally would be:
    killings
    God 2,476,633
    Satan 10
    No contest.
    Update
    I’ve tried to assign numbers to the un-numbered killings in the Bible. You can see the detailed list here.
    The results were even more lopsided: 25 million (plus or minus a few million) for God; 60 for Satan.
    Here is a more complete table.
    numbered killings estimated total killings
    God 2,476,633 25 million
    Satan 10 60
    Much more information about God’s killings, with a chapter on each of the 135 killing events, can be found int the book:
    Drunk With Blood: God’s killings in the Bible
    Attribution: http://dwindlinginunbelief….
    With acknowledgment to Steve Wells for doing the research and the maths and calculating the above.

  • Ash Astaroth

    You seem cock sure that “religion” and “philosophy” are clearly defined and mutually exclusive… you sure about that?

  • towercam

    I’d rather have a Satanist next door than a delusional christian or muslim, that’s for sure.

  • Bob Jase

    “Satan is nothing if not one to buck the system and challenge the status quo. ”

    Just like Trump.

  • I think it’s kinda funny that a Satanist is so willing to jump on board with the Christian fundamentalists and accuse atheism of being dogmatic. Not sure you’re doing yourself or Satanism any favors by embracing the straw man, but go right ahead.

    Also, there is no positive aspect to a lie. If religion has any positives, they’re things that can be achieved without the religion.

  • I certainly didn’t claim that atheism itself, or that all atheists adhere to the dogma that religion is inherently bad. But you have to admit there is a contingent of atheists that do hold that position dogmatically, no?

  • There are contingents of atheists that hold the position that ghosts are real and the Bermuda Triangle makes ships disappear. So what? Atheism is a big tent – there are going to be people in it that hold a whole variety of beliefs. That doesn’t change the fact that all atheism is is a lack of belief in gods. Accusations that focus on the beliefs of individuals or groups within atheism are irrelevant to atheism as a whole. It’s ridiculous to claim atheism has a problem with dogma when all atheism is is the lack of belief in gods.

  • Ok, we’re really not that far off here. I’m an atheist and a Satanist. So am I in that big tent, or are you kicking me out that tent because I think non-belief is compatible with my religion and that’s fine? Do you think atheism inherently excludes religion? If not, you and I don’t have a disagreement.

  • It’s cool Jack,we don’t have to agree. For us at WOLF,I was talking about,I’m human,I err. No worries. We all have to do what works for each one of us. What I said above,works for me. Cheers.

  • The only thing I see that has anything to do with “cocks”,is your cocky ass attitude.

  • Inkswitch

    Quick question: when you say “Satanists” are you referring to LaVay-style Satanism which is mostly just atheism with Satanist aesthetics or Theological Satanism (the religous belief)? It’s just I see the two often conflated and it confuses the heck out of me

  • WonKa

    I’m interested in what WOLF is. You state it so confidently. Like P.A.G.A.N. or T.H.R.U.S.H.

  • Bei Dawei

    The devil’s in the details.

  • Cooper Wood

    Like the idea of Satanism being anti-authoritarian, fits with my anarchism. But as an anarchist (not like the bomb throwers and presidential assassins of over 100 yrs ago but in the line of the FAI of the second Spanish republic) I see any ritual as means of control. All religions are good at this – if you want to be a part of our group you must do as we do otherwise go away. If you really want to be uncontrolled be like the Society of Friends (Quakers) and freely speak up in meetings.

  • W.O.L.F. Warriors Ov Lucifers Fallen,our original Coven was from Ireland,in the late 1500’s,The Order of the Dubh Lasair,(Irish for black flame),we changed the name to WOLF around 08,09. We are Pagans by nature.

  • Yes, Satanism is an atheistic religion. There are people who believe in a literal Satan but in my experience they overwhelmingly tend to be Christian

  • Turdley McGirt

    I enjoyed this article. I am a former fundametalist pastor, now atheist. I do see the character of satan as compelling and can appreciate the reasons given for choosing him as a mascot for rebellion against intellectual bondage. I enjoy the political trolling of satanic groups. However, for me – and this is largely subjective – the idea of adopting satanism after leaving christianity is akin to divorcing a a homely, frigid woman and marryrng her hot, hedonistic sister. It sounds like a good deal – but holidays at the in-laws would be uncomfortable as hell. Best to stay single, if you follow my meaning.

    I respect your views and see more in common than not between us. I see no need for a narrative to follow and prefer live as experiential improvisation. I can see, however, how it would provide a familiar comfort to others with religious backgrounds. Again – good read!

  • You are in that big tent only as long as you disbelieve in gods, and only as long as you understand that atheism is ONLY disbelief in gods. Your philosophy and your religion have nothing to do with atheism. Atheism inherently excludes religion because it has nothing to do with religion. Similarly, atheism inherently excludes philosophy because it has nothing to do with philosophy.It seems to me that you’re falling for the same canard that fundamentalists fall for – the idea that atheism is a philosophy. It’s not, nor should it be. You are an atheist and a Satanist, and they are mutually exclusive, because Satanism is a philosophy whereas atheism is not. And the only one who can kick you out of atheism is you, because once again, atheism isn’t a movement, with leaders and a dogma, so you’re the only one who can kick yourself out, by starting to believe gods are real.

    Also, it seems to me that you’re falsely characterizing Satanism as a religion. Religion is currently defined as “The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.”

    Satanism, as I understand it, isn’t that. It’s a philosophy. It’s regarded as a religion under US law, for the same reason Buddhism is. However, in reality, it’s not a religion.

  • Jack7

    I don’t know if I’m aware of any satanists who think Satan is real. Definitely not ones associated with TST or TCoS.

  • Jack7

    It sounds like you’re trying to get him to say more than he did.

  • Jack7

    Says the one making the definitive statement…

  • There are some, but definitely the minority. There’s a book called “The Invention of Satan” (http://amzn.to/2k95uvL) that honestly has some really good polling data.

  • Sixeta

    When the arguments in the comment section are more interesting then the article itself.

  • Sophotroph

    At Patheos, we call that Tuesday.

  • Sequoia Lea Ananda

    Religion has multiple definitions. To be considered a religion it is not a requirement that one believes in or worships a supernatural entity. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/religion

  • jmarch17

    What you mean about bucking the system and questioning authority is characteristic of Lucifer and not Satan. Satan is who Lucifer became by bucking the system and questioning authority. Lucifer was a promethean light bearer who pried divine knowledge out of God and so became totally corrupt and psychopathically evil. This probably has more to do with why people avoid identifying as Satanist than any of the numerous panics of the past.

  • Label wise to me that’s kind of like being picky about the difference between Prince and ‘the artist formerly known as Prince’. But also that’s just not how I interpret the metaphor. In my read Satan gave people knowledge so they could liberate themselves from tyranny in the same way Prometheus stole fire and gave it to people.

  • jmarch17

    That’s Lucifer who did that. Satan led people astray with lies. It’s the difference between calling yourself by a label that conjures up a Nobel Prize winner and a label that conjurers up a serial killer. If I were looking for a group to join, I would prefer the former to the latter.

  • So call yourself a Luciferian and sign up with The Assembly of Light Bearers if you feel the semantics are that important. Or don’t. You do you.

  • Frank

    “All atheism is is a lack of belief in gods.”
    “You are an atheist and a Satanist, and they are mutually exclusive, because Satanism is a philosophy whereas atheism is not.”

    The second statement is a little bizarre, and contradicts the first.

    All atheism is, is a lack of belief in gods. Satanism is a philosophy that includes a lack of belief in gods. To say that atheism and Satanism are mutually exclusive because one is a philosophy and the other isn’t, is like saying that atheism and Marxism are mutually exclusive because one is a philosophy and the other isn’t… even though atheism is an important part of Marxism.

    Additionally, your definition of “religion” is needlessly narrow. If you look up “religion” in the dictionary, the first definition is “the service and worship of God or the supernatural,” but there are other definitions listed right below that, including “a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith.”

    And setting Merriam-Webster aside for a moment, it’s clear that there are differences between religion and philosophy that go beyond the question of belief in God. After all, there are many philosophies that are explicitly theistic, but we wouldn’t call them “religions.” Kierkegaard was a devout Christian, but we still call his philosophy “philosophy” and not “the religion of Kierkegaardism.” The difference between philosophy and religion isn’t whether or not it includes belief in God. Religion is a social, cultural, and emotive thing. Philosophy is about thinking through big questions as clearly as possible, while religion deals with symbolism and ritual to fulfill certain psychological / “spiritual” needs.

  • Flattered, but not my thing.

  • lisu

    You’ve just met Patheos Nonreligious’ favourite troll, who likes to run around impersonating regular users. Have fun!